Owner says timetable for development remains uncertain

Though slated to become a predominantly par-3 golf course, Sunrise will remain in its familiar format indefinitely. Owner John Byram said he doesn’t know when he’ll close the Colbert course and transform it into an executive-level course, freeing up room for a 55-and-older active adult community to be developed around it.

“Indefinitely, because until the economy is strong enough to develop this active adult community, I don’t want to do it,” Byram said.

The Madison County Board of Commissioners approved this much-talked-about rezoning, 4-1, last Monday.

The plans call for the course to be shortened to 15 par-3’s and three-par-4’s with the construction of 158 single-family houses and 60 townhouses.

Though Byram’s representative Tom Breedlove said the project could be completed within two years once started, the jumping off point is uncertain.

Byram said banks’ willingness to loan money will dictate the timetable.

“The banks aren’t even loaning money for that kind of thing right now,” Byram said.

That leaves Byram, owner of the financially-troubled course since 2002, to mull his options.

“I may partner-up with somebody, so I’m sort of somewhat in wait-and-see,” Byram said.

Redesigning the course and laying the infrastructure for the retirement community will cost between $3-4 million — a tentative figure — according to Byram.

The course redesign plans call for changing four greens, leaving 14 unaltered.

“That’s the big expense in building a golf course are the greens,” he said. “We’re utilizing a lot of the existing course without having to change that many holes.”

Byram had tried three times, unsuccessfully, to rezone the golf course property before the BOC OK’d his plans last week.

“I’m just grateful,” he said. “I’m very, very grateful. I really believe the project will put Madison County on the map. It’s something that will help Madison County grow in a positive direction.”

But a number of Madison County residents disagreed, saying the development will be a clear negative for the community. Opponents spoke of traffic safety issues, potential sewage problems, the density of the proposed residential development, the strains on EMS and fire services, the impact on the area’s water supply.

“This won’t be a development you can look back on in 20 years and be proud of,” Charles Hart told commissioners last week.

Meanwhile, others said the rezoning was necessary to keep the course open. They said the development will help save jobs, that it won’t have much impact on county services and that it will provide an option for seniors looking for retirement property.

Byram said he wants to target a regional senior market. He pointed out that Georgia Club — located on Hwy. 316 — lures retirees that can spend $500,00 for a home. But the aim of the Sunrise project is to target those wanting to spend $200,000 to $250,000, Byram said.

“It’s keeping the golf course and yet, giving something to the community and to the general public that’s need in the Athens area,” he said.

With the rezoning, Byram believes he has “saleable product” now. He said there are a lot of courses out there, “but there’s not a lot of golf courses with this kind of plan in place,” he said.

“In my estimation, this is definitely the highest and best use of that golf course,” Byram said.

But Byram said it’s too soon to submit plans for engineering.

“Basically you have to wait until you get ready to construct it … I don’t where all this money is going that the federal government keeps throwing at these banks, why these banks aren’t loosening up their credit, but they’re not,” he said.

Until then, he’ll continue to operate the golf course in its traditional format, even though there’s always the possibility that, if things worsened enough, he’d have to close the course and wait out the economic downturn.

“That’s always a possibility, sure,” he said. “If it got to the point where I wasn’t getting any play at all, yeah. But I hope that never happens.”

Still, by keeping it open, Byram said he’s running Sunrise at a loss.

“I want to keep it running until I can either built it (the development) … or get a partner or possibly sell it,” he said.

Byram talks about changes

Byram said that Sunrise is designed in such a way that it would minimize the changes in the conversion to the executive-level format — whenever that happens.

“Pretty much of the whole left side of the course is going to be the same,” he said. “The part that borders Kingston Greens is really not going to be changed at all hardly.”

The majority of the redesign will impact the eastern portion of the course, he said.

The entire project would be completed in two or three phases, Byram said.

The first phase would include the course redesign, building at least a third of the homes and constructing amenities like a clubhouse, tennis courts and a pool.

Residents’ homeowner association fees would go toward the maintaining the clubhouse, pool and tennis courts.

Golf memberships for homeowners would be offered separately since the course would still be open to general public.

Byram said maintaining a par-3 set-up would be cheaper than a traditional course due to reduced costs with the up-keep of fairways.

He also expects more jobs to be created. Front yards would need maintenance under the homeowners’ agreement, while the clubhouse, tennis courts and pool would need employees, too, he said.

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