After several years spent in the rough, an abandoned golf course in the Oro Valley may soon find new life as a nature reserve.
But first, a group of community environmentalists must raise $ 1.8 million in two months to buy the old Vistoso golf club.
“It’s heavy, but we focus on it like a laser beam,” said Craig MacKay, one of the founding members of Preserve Vistoso.
The neighborhood nonprofit partnered with a national organization called The Conservation Fund to purchase the property and turn it into a desert park and community trail.
The Tom Weiskopf-designed golf course opened in 1995, but rising water prices and declining gambling doomed the operation. The 18-hole desert course closed permanently in 2018, three years after Canada-based investment firm Romspen bought it out of bankruptcy.
Residents along the Links launched Preserve Vistoso in early 2019 in hopes of saving the golf course or at least having a say in what happened to it next.
“What was really scary was the uncertainty,” said MacKay, who moved into his house on the second fairway shortly before the course closed.
The group’s efforts took on new urgency in March 2020, when Romspen launched plans to dezone the property and sell it to a residential or nursing home developer.
“We don’t need the desert to disappear anymore,” said Patricia Sturmon, communications president of Preserve Vistoso. “The first choice would have been to keep it as a golf course, but it just wasn’t feasible.”
Out of the sand
Mike Ford is the Nevada and Southwestern Director of the Conservation Fund, which has completed 26 land acquisitions in Arizona since 1999, including an addition of approximately 1,600 acres to Saguaro National Park and a 30,000-acre extension to the park. National Petrified Forest.
He said his organization had purchased old golf courses in the past, but that was not a big part of what it was doing. He was skeptical when Preserve Vistoso first contacted him about their idea.
“I was worried it was a handful of NIMBY landowners,” trying to prevent more homes from being built around them, Ford said. “It turned out to be a lot more than that. “
The golf course property offers impressive views of the Catalina Mountains, “phenomenal native vegetation” and surprising archaeological resources, including petroglyphs visible from at least one fairway, Ford said. “The day I was there there were deer running around the course.”
Preserve Vistoso, meanwhile, has proven to be an active and engaged group, with a membership roster that recently surpassed 2,000.
Ford said Oro Valley officials were also keen to help with the transaction, especially after so many residents rallied around Romspen’s rezoning proposal.
A first round of negotiations ended in failure in 2020, when the two sides could not agree on a purchase price for the 208-acre site. By that time, Preserve Vistoso had already raised $ 1.5 million in pledges and donations for this effort.
“We were disheartened when he failed the first time,” Sturmon said.
Putt for the dough
The second round of talks, encouraged by city leaders earlier this year, resulted in an agreement that delineates six acres already zoned for high-density development where the clubhouse, restaurant and parking lot are now located. golf course.
Ford said Romspen will keep this land for sale to a local builder, most likely for a townhouse or apartment development.
The Conservation Fund will purchase the remaining 202 acres and then donate it to the town of Oro Valley for open space and “low-impact recreational use,” he said.
A conservation easement will be placed on the land – and held in trust by a separate entity – to “prohibit any kind of development in perpetuity,” Ford said.
Of course, it all depends on the money.
Preserve Vistoso officially launched its second fundraising campaign on October 12 and raised over $ 250,000 in the first week. The group has set a deadline of December 15 to raise the remainder of the $ 1.8 million.
Ford is hoping that many of the people who signed up last time will contribute even more this time around, now that an agreement is in place with the owner.
“We get cash donations and pledges every day,” he said. “I am cautiously optimistic that we will achieve this goal. “
According to Preserve Vistoso, the golf course runs through 17 different residential developments, with around 6,000 people living within walking distance of the property.
It won’t take much to open the site to the public. The proposed reserve already includes six miles of wide, fully accessible concrete footpaths, with underground passages under major neighborhood roads.
There are also three toilets already in place that could be reopened without much effort, MacKay said. “There is literally millions of dollars of infrastructure on this course. “
Small shade structures and picnic tables could be added later, but the proposed easement would prohibit any heavily trafficked recreational facilities such as ball fields or an outdoor event venue.
“There are people who prefer to have houses behind them rather than an amphitheater,” MacKay said.
“It’s natural for people to worry about such a thing, but it won’t happen,” Sturmon added.
Hard up and down
Some key details still need to be worked out, including where people will park and access the car paths that have been turned into walking trails now that the main course of the golf course is set aside for private development.
Part of the landscape will also require work.
The course’s carefully groomed playing surfaces are long dead, revealing patches of dried mulch choked with brush. A picturesque pond that once served as a backdrop for weddings is now a dry hole collecting tumbleweeds.
“In areas where there were greens and fairways, it’s not really pretty,” MacKay said.
Fortunately, the natural desert was an integral part of the design of the golf course, he said, so “about 70% of it was never touched.”
For the rest, there are a number of state and federal grant programs that could be used to replace old fairways, greens, and practice areas with native plants.
Otherwise, visitors to the reserve will just have to wait for nature to take its course.
“The desert will win eventually,” MacKay said.
To donate or learn more about Preserve Vistoso’s efforts to create a natural park at Golf Club de Vistoso, visit the group’s website: www.preservevistoso.org.