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Plans for recently sold Bay Tree still unknown

jlee@thesunnews.com

LITTLE RIVER Austin Gormley has seen the peaks and valleys that Bay Tree Golf Plantation has gone through since the native of Ireland moved to the area in 1984.

He shot the final round on the golf course-turned-rundown land-turned-condominiums. Gormley experienced the golf boon and felt it fall by the wayside. He saw the once 50/50 split of owner occupied versus renters to now a 30/70 split leaning more toward homeowners. He was there in the mid 2000s when the trend of weekly vacation rentals dwindled to three-day rentals. And now the broker in charge at Bay Tree Realty is ready for the next change — the sale of the 530-acre property off S.C. 9 to buyers in Virginia.

“I’m optimistic that there’s going to be plenty of homes out there,” Gormley said of the portion of 54 remaining acres that is allowed to be developed.

Previous plans approved by the Horry County Planning Commission called for town houses, condominiums, a pub, a church, and an ampitheater, but Horry County officials aren’t sure what plans the developers will move forward with, said Lisa Bourcier, spokeswoman for the county.

“Their [planned development district] is still in place, however, we’ve had discussions with the buyers in the last few months,” Bourcier said. “They are considering making some changes to their PDD, but until plans are submitted we will not know if it will be a minor PDD change or more significant changes that will require it to go before the planning commission.”

Carol Hahn, an attorney with Virginia Beach, Va.-based Faggert & Frieden who represents the buyers, could not be reached for comment. Don Smith, real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Chicora who sold the property to the buyers, could not be reached for comment.

The 54-hole Bay Tree Golf Plantation was one unlucky course caught trying to redevelop when the bubble burst. The course in Little River closed in 2006 and was sold to Centex Homes for redevelopment. Although Centex drew up plans for new housing, the company never broke ground and the property was sold once again to the Wakefield Development Co. in 2007.

The development has since stalled, because Wakefield has encountered financial trouble and reduced its property holdings, said Mike Dixon, a former spokesman who declined to comment further. Wakefield could not be reached for comment.

Austin Gormley came to the Grand Strand in 1984 to sell condos as part of the original Bay Tree development, which opened in 1972. The Ireland native continues to rent properties to vacationers under the name Bay Tree Realty & Rentals.

“It’s killed my business, the golf course closing,” he said.

Slow business led Gormley to put the office up for sale last week, he said.

The overgrown course provides a backdrop for his office, a small white house. The 529 acres has gone to seed with saplings growing on fairways and debris obstructing cart paths. A partially-collapsed results board faces a bare concrete foundation, the only remnant of the course’s clubhouse. Liquor bottles litter the area and graffiti is scrawled on buildings. Gormley says that the former course has become a hangout for rowdy teenagers.

The condos around the course have dropped considerably in value, said Jim Kielty, president of one of Bay Tree’s six homeowners associations. A condo that was originally bought for $129,000 would now sell for as low as $79,000, he said. Kielty has owned his condo since 2001.

The poor upkeep devalues the property, Kielty said. Developers removed all signs from the course’s entrance on S.C. 9 so that it has fallen out of the public eye.

“Nobody knows where Bay Tree is anymore,” he said.

Horry County granted the homeowners association a permit last week allowing them to beautify the land along the state road that runs into the complex. They plan to add palm trees and flowers as well as two signs at the development’s entrance.

Kielty said the associations will pay for maintenance if Wakefield refuses. The association used to cut the grass on three holes that run between the condos before Wakefield requested they stop, he said. Recent requests to maintain the property have gone unanswered, he said.

Too much of a good thing

The problem began with too many golf courses, according to one analyst.

By the late ’90s, the Grand Strand had become saturated with golf courses, said Tom Maeser, market analyst for the Coastal Carolinas Association of Realtors.

“It’s hard to make money on a golf course. You need to have a heck of a lot of rounds,” Maeser said. “If the golf course wasn’t cash flowing, it made more sense to turn it into lots.”

Then, with the real estate crash, the market was flooded with cheap residential properties, including many foreclosures, he said.

The average price on condos continues to decline and about 20 percent of listings are foreclosures, he said. Maeser projects it will be about a year and a half or more before already-built properties sell and demand for new properties returns. Until then, it doesn’t make sense to build new condos.

Demand for properties on golf courses may also grow slower than the overall condo market. Condos on golf courses are never in as much demand as those on the ocean or Intracoastal Waterway, he said. Even when the market does catch up, it probably won’t return to previous growth rates.

The uncertain market has development plans on hold on the former site of Robbers Roost Golf Club. The North Myrtle Beach course closed in 2003 and there were plans to break ground on an extensive new development in 2009 that would have included stores and housing, said Russell Burgess Jr., a partner in the development.

A bank planned to begin construction on a new branch, but is now waiting to see if the market improves, Burgess said. Several other investors are looking to buy sections of the development but are holding off because of market concerns, he said. Without investors, the land will continue to go undeveloped.

The plan, if it goes ahead, includes condos built on the fairways that now run between the condos of Robbers Roost Villas. The holes, ringed by cart tracks and longneedled pines, have been better maintained than those at Bay Tree, with most of the grass cropped to ankle level.

Ken Robbins retired from a car factory in Georgia and moved into a condo on the course when it was still operating. Although the course has closed, he plans to live out his retirement in the condo, he said. The 77-year-old remembers dodging golf balls while watching the fairways from his backyard.

“I used to sit out back and watch them get mad and throw their clubs,” he said.

Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301 or on Twitter @TSN_JRodriguez.

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