WELLS, Maine -- Neither ice nor snow nor frozen ground (not even two decades of development stasis) can blunt the ongoing development progress here at Old Marsh Golf Club, now under construction along the Maine coast.
Developed by Bath, Maine-based Harris Golf (the force behind the feted Sunday River Golf Club), Old Marsh GC will feature 131 real estate units and a resort-style course designed by architect Brian Silva. The club will feature a membership program, but the course itself will be open to public play — a boon to holiday-makers in one of Maine’s most popular vacation spots.
Home builders DC Development of Haverhill, Mass., and Boston-based GFI will begin building roads and model units March 1. Forty-two duplexes and 89 single-family homes are planned, ranging in size from 1,300 to 2,500 square feet. Clubhouse construction will begin this fall and, remarkably, there’s an outside chance that golf will be played at Old Marsh before the year is out.
Though course builders here typically wait until spring before rolling in the heavy equipment, Harris Golf called its crew to work at Old Marsh on Jan. 2, under the direction of project superintendent Clayton Longfellow.
“We believe the cuts and fills on the first nine holes — all the rough shaping — will be done by the end of February,” said Harris Golf President Jeff Harris, whose firm built Sunday River and is handling all course-construction activities at Old Marsh. “We expect a similar time-table for the second nine holes, beginning March 1. That means we can finish-shape and seed the first nine in May, June and July, then open them for play in fall 2007. It’s hard for me to imagine, frankly. And I wouldn’t be saying it if I weren’t seeing it with my own eyes.”
Golf courses simply aren’t built that quickly in Northern New England, where, as a general rule, soils are rocky and harsh winters preclude this sort of major construction activity. Undaunted Harris Golf has forged ahead, setting new precedent for what can and can’t be done on the ground during a Maine winter.
Harris Golf has made a habit of setting new precedent. Last year the firm christened Sunday River Golf Club, a project that had sat dormant for more than 10 years and was presumed dead; in December, Golf Digest named Sunday River among the nation’s top six upscale public course to open during 2006.
Old Marsh is another back-from-the-dead project. Golf was first proposed here in the mid-1980s. Since that time, at least three owners have been frustrated in their attempts to develop this piece of ground, first known as Ocean 18, then Maine National. After 20 years, all manner or environmental restrictions, impact issues and permitting squabbles had presumably doomed the project forever. It wasn’t until Harris Golf expressed an interest in the property 18 months ago that the wheels started turning, again.
“There were all sorts of sticking points with this project but the environmental issues were paramount,” Harris explained. “There are a large amount of wetlands on site, but we’ve learned that you’ve got to have the right consultants and engineers involved, so they can work their way through the issues and set the right course. There is give and take. In Wells, for example, we are creating and preserving approximately 280 acres of wetlands and wildlife habitat in return for the 14 acres we’ll impact in building the golf course and real estate community.
“Some developers fight with the state and federal agencies and say, ‘This is my land; I can fill that wetland if I want.’ Well, that’s not how it works, and that sort of attitude just bogs down the process.”
While Harris Golf is a seasoned developer with experience in the Maine market — in addition to the Sunday River track, Harris developed 57 neighboring real estate units; in 2002, the firm built 15 new holes at Boothbay Country Club, where it has since developed 21 housing units; there are several other high-profile projects in the works — the scale, setting and time frame at Old Marsh are different animals altogether.
"It took us two-and-a-half years to build Sunday River; Old Marsh could be finished and entirely playable in 15 months,” Harris explained. “We used our expertise to get the permitting done, but we’ve yet to do a golf course community of this size, soup to nuts. So it’s a great challenge. And the site at Old Marsh is completely different from anything we’ve ever worked on before — but that’s a good thing. Sunday River featured heavy, rocky soils and 200-foot elevations. That’s what we know. We could never have worked over the winter up there. But we’re finding that if you have the silty, gravelly, sandy soils we have at Old Marsh, we can work all year-round.”
If there’s one person who understands the Old Marsh property — its history and physical attributes — it’s the course designer, Brian Silva, who first routed the golf holes on this terrain and has since seen three different developers come and go. “The first time I flagged trees on this site was 1986,” Silva recalled. “That’s a wicked long time ago.”
Silva, GolfWorld magazine’s “Architect of the Year” in 1999, explained that the building of Old Marsh is not unlike golf course construction in Florida. The site is basically flat. A series of ponds, seven in all, will be excavated and the resulting material will be used to shape the course features.
“Not too many golf courses in New England have been built the way Old Marsh is being built,” said the Dover, N.H.-based Silva, who should know — he is New England’s most accomplished course architect. His original designs range from the celebrated Redtail GC in Ayer, Mass., to the Black Creek Club in Chattanooga, Tenn., while his renovation portfolio includes ultra-private Florida classics like Seminole and The Everglades Club.
“I’ve never understood why more courses in Florida and the Southeast weren’t the model of strategy,” Silva continued. “The land is flat and the soil easily manipulated. Strategically, you can do whatever you want, in relative terms. This is the landscape we have in Wells. So, if I have it in my mind to design a draw, driveable par-4 — as we have done with the 14th at Old Marsh — we can just go out and build it. It’s not like typical New England sites where there’s a mountain between tee and green, or a steep side-slope of solid rock. You just go out and build it. And fortunately, I’m working with someone as capable and enthusiastic as Jeff [Harris], who says, ‘Yeah, go do it.’ It’s going to be a very cool golf course.”
For more information on Old Marsh Golf Club, contact Harris Golf at 207-442-8725 or visit www.harrisgolfonline.com
About Harris Golf
Harris Golf Group is one of New England’s premier course development, construction and management companies. In addition to Old Marsh GC, the company operates Boothbay Country Club along Maine’s Midcoast, Freeport Country Club adjacent to world famous L.L. Bean, and Sunday River Golf Club in Newry, Maine.