Michy Kelly refers to her home next to a Richland County golf course as a haven that eases her chronic anxiety, which the neuroscientist attributes to the stress of a troubled upbringing in multiple homes amid divorce.

"The only thing that got me through my childhood, honestly, was the dream of owning my dream home someday," Kelly said.

The home overlooking the 14th hole of The Golf Club of South Carolina at Crickentree appealed in particular because of its peaceful view of trees and fairways, instead of other houses, as a natural antidote to stress, she said. She and her husband, Marc Smith, hunted for two years to find what she calls her dream home, which they thought would be forever protected from being crowded by additional development.

"We were literally buying our sanity," she said. 

Last year, however, the course shut down amid challenging times for the golf industry. The owner, a Texas company called E-Capital Management, is seeking to earn more from the property by building up to 207 homes where the course now sits abandoned, its fairways and greens becoming weedy and hard to discern. 

To protect their piece of mind and their property values, neighbors have banded together to appeal to Richland County Council to block the change. It's a battle that is cropping up more frequently across South Carolina and the nation. With demand for golf rounds flat as fewer in the millennial generation take up the game, course owners are facing tough times. The pressures of taxes and financing, according to experts in the golf business, are forcing some to abandon the business and seek to redevelop the courses into something that generates more income — which often means houses being added on what was a premium pastoral view for expensive existing homes.

In essence, each side is asserting that the other is damaging its property rights.

Paying more for the view

To many neighbors in the Crickentree subdivision, the arithmetic is simple: they paid extra for their properties with a golf course view, and putting new houses there would damage both their lives and the values of their properties. Kelly said she looked at comparable real estate when they bought their house in 2013. Similar houses without such a view were $40,000 less than the house the couple bought, which Kelly sees as proof that part of her home's value is wrapped up in its course views. "To me, that's data."

Michael Koska, a homeowner who has rallied opposition to the move, said that home values already are being forced down by the threat of the change, and sales have dried up in recent months with the question of the course's future in the air. Some homeowners, Koska said, are at risk of losing one-third of their home's value to the development and even being put upside-down in a home loan that is far larger than the property's current value. Of his own home's current value, Koska said: "I've been told to not bother listing it."

Koska created a website, savegolfcourses.com, to organize opponents to fill meetings and speak out during the Richland County rezoning process. Dozens of neighbors appeared and spoke at a Richland Planning Commission meeting June 3, wearing red shirts to display broad opposition to the proposal. 

Those who turned out to be heard emphasized they had reached into their wallets to acquire property with added privacy and quiet, which they expected the special zoning to protect. Koska said he was interested in organizing neighbors to buy the land to make into a public park or to remain as open space, but said he had received no encouragement from E-Capital. 

The commission's majority agreed with the homeowners, voting 6-2 to recommend disapproval of the change. The panel is only advisory, however; the decision on the zoning change rests with county council. 

A fight over property rights

That a zoning hearing is necessary at all is unusual. More than a decade ago, the county put many golf courses with adjacent homes in a special, restrictive zoning category, called Traditional Recreational Open Space. The zoning emphasizes protecting the natural aspects of the area and doesn't allow housing.

In other parts of the state, however, golf courses often have no special zoning. That often means landowners can start building houses without any hearing or public comment. 

Closings of golf courses have been most common in Horry County, where so many courses are concentrated. About 20 courses have closed in recent years in the Myrtle Beach area, leaving about 80 courses to serve the area's customers. Demand for golf rounds has not grown as quickly as the Myrtle Beach course inventory, said Terry Sedalik, executive director of the S.C. Golf Course Owners Association. 

"They were overbuilt, obviously, for the cycle we're in," Sedalik said.

Residents have been opposing the proposed conversion of Indian Wells Golf Club in Myrtle Beach, which is owned by Founders Group International, a Chinese company with many properties along the Grand Strand. Residents have been arguing for a less-dense development than the current project allows and opposing a rezoning that also would allow some commercial development on the former course. 

In Fort Mill, the Regents Park course closed in 2015, and residents who overlooked the course argued against its redevelopment into homes. Owners of the course land did receive the zoning change they sought from York County Council, with limitations on what could be built.

The Charleston area has been relatively immune to the loss of golf courses, Sedalik said. The region's strong tourism trade has brought reliable flow of added players, while the area has not been as overpopulated with golf courses as the Grand Strand, Sedalik said. 

The number of rounds of golf played in the state actually has rebounded from its decline in recent years, up 6 percent since 2015, according to a study from the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism in conjunction with the course owners association.  

While the number of golf rounds is rising slightly, the financial challenges for golf course operators are climbing steeply, according to Rock Lucas, owner of Charwood Country Club in Lexington County. Many courses are finding their assessed values are dropping in the eyes of lenders, making it more expensive to afford the capital they need to stay in business, Lucas said. Banks even are balking at offering further credit to courses because they see the courses as less valuable and too risky for their balance sheets these days, he said.

Another challenge in other areas such as Horry County: the property tax assessment on golf courses is rising, Lucas said. That adds to the pressure to convert the course to homes or other uses that could bring in more revenue. 

Neighbors for golf courses often are not members of the club and would be best-served by pitching in to keep courses running, Lucas said. Their alternatives are to buy the course themselves, watch the land turn to scrub when the course closes, or see houses get built instead.

"The community should want golf courses to thrive and succeed because they are hubs of community," Lucas said.

As for Crickentree, the issue is expected to be heard before Richland County Council. E-Capital will take its case for a zoning change before the full body likely at a June 25 meeting, according to its attorney, Robert Fuller. To address concerns, E-Capital has proposed about 30 acres of the about 185-acre plot be set aside as a buffer between current homes and the new development, Fuller said.

If the zoning isn't changed, the county essentially is blocking any profitable use of the former course, Fuller said. "It would be an act of eminent domain without payment," he said. 

If the special zoning is dropped at Crickentree, it is likely that other courses in Richland County will face redevelopment quickly, Koska said. That would make hundreds more homeowners unhappy in the Midlands over losing their privacy, Koska said.

Sedalik said he understands that homeowners next to a course believe they should get to keep the view they paid to get, though often the owner seeking to redevelop is not the same one that first sold off the home lots. Course owners themselves are feeling the pressure to fund operations in a low-margin industry, he said.

"It's difficult for everybody, it really is."

John McDermott contributed to this report.

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Mike Fitts is a veteran South Carolina journalist who covers business from Columbia.

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