The Case Against Golf Course Expansion

 and For Preservation of Salem Woods


Prepared by Christopher Burke, Richard Luecke, and Alan Young, Ph.D


November 2003





Executive summary


1.     A brief history of Salem Woods

2.     Ecological impact of course expansion

3.     The economic case against course expansion

·       The poor financial performance of Olde Salem Greens

·       Course expansion would produce major losses

·       Golf participation is in decline

·       A cautionary tale: Natick’s white elephant

4.     Over-commitment of City park land to golf

5.     Water use at Olde Salem Greens

6.     The case for preservation of Salem Woods as a natural forest



·       Salem Woods Plant inventory

·       Salem Woods Bird inventory

·       Comparison of Vegetation Diversity in Various Habitats within Salem Woods and Olde Salem Greens


Executive Summary


·       Salem Woods is part of a larger parcel known as Highland Park, which was deeded to the City in 1906 on the condition that it be maintained as parkland. Over the decades, this condition has been violated. Pieces of Highland Park have been given over to on non-park development, and the last remaining parcel of forest, Salem Woods, has been threatened by plans for golf course expansion.


·       A nine-hole expansion of Olde Salem Greens would effectively eliminate Salem Woods as a viable forest through clearing and “fragmentation,” destroying nesting and foraging territories for animals and dramatically reducing biodiversity in the City. Owning to the discovery of a vernal pool, any attempt to develop the area would require an environmental impact assessment and hydrological analysis, and would more than likely end up being prohibited.


·       The rational for course expansion offered by golf boosters is revenues for a cash-starved municipality. A full costing analysis of current operations at Olde Salem Greens indicates that the course operates only slightly above breakeven. The cost of course expansion would not cure this anemic performance, but would result in substantial annual losses to the City Treasury over the many years.


·       The economic case for course expansion is weakened further by the fact that golf participation around the country and in our area has declined each year for the past three years. Declining participation and an oversupply of golf courses have led the golf industry and industry analysts to forecast no demand for new course in most areas.


·       Currently, 21 percent of all Salem parkland is allocated exclusively to golf, even though only 6-9 percent of Salem residents participate.  Expansion of the course would result in 51 percent of City parkland being allocated exclusively to golf, and ignore the interests of other residents.


·       Olde Salem Greens is a major user of City water resources, consuming an estimated 8 million gallon in the average year.  The cost of that water, roughly $27,000, is currently absorbed by City taxpayers.  Doubling water use to satisfy the thirst of an expanded course would aggrevate Salem’s water shortage problems and may require substantial capital investments in water infrastructure.


·       The Woods in its natural state is a place for learning, for discovery, and for restoring the human spirit.  It is also a refuge for many species with which we share this planet. It deserves protection and preservation as a natural forest.



1.     A Brief History of Highland Park: A Promise Not Kept


Highland Park, the area containing Salem Woods and Olde Salem Greens, was given to the City of Salem in 1906 for a nominal cost by The Great Pasture Company on the condition that Salem use it for a “Park, and for no other purpose.”  In its vote to accept the deed, the city council promised to use the land as a park. The deed itself states that the land is to be used as a park.


The original park was surrounded completely by a wall that formed two pastures, a 14.28-acre pasture north of Willson Street and a 224.14-acre pasture located south of Willson Street. Connecting the two pastures was a narrow walled cattle chute.


 Just north of the park parcel, the city in a separate transaction with the same seller, but on a separate deed, bought 10.4 acres for a school. That is the land on which the Collin’s Middle School is now located.


Over the years the promise made in the Highland Park deed, to keep the land as a park, was not kept. One piece was transferred to the school department for Bertram Field. Another was taken for the Shaughnessey Hospital parking lot. Yet another piece went to Salem Hospital. And the narrow cattle chute is now a short city street called Old Road. Thus, the entire14.28 acre north pasture was taken for non-park purposes.


The 224.14-acre pasture south of Willson Street, is all that remains of Salem’s Highland Park. In 1931 and 1932, a nine-hole golf course was constructed on the most suitable land within Highland Park. The golf course entryway, parking lot, maintenance area and playing areas spread over 95 acres. The remaining 129 acres is known as the Salem Woods. Even that section has been threatened by development. In 1988, for instance, the City paid a reputable golf course designer to conceptualize an eighteen-hole course in Highland Park. Owing to the marshes and many ledgy areas in the Woods, that plan proved problematic. On the designer’s drawing, parts of two holes could not even be contained within the park border. So much of the land is cliff and wetland that the park had insufficient usable land for nine more holes of proper length. Since 1988, vernal pools have been discovered and certified by the state in Salem Woods, making development even more questionable.


Today, Salem is used year-round by young and old.  Among them are Boy Scouts, Salem elementary school students, hikers, dog walkers, birders, and photographers.


2.  Ecological Impact of Course Expansion


Several people have suggested that an expanded Olde Salem Greens golf course could coexist with the Salem Woods forest ecosystem. This simply is not possible. Virtually all of Salem Woods would be needed to expand the existing nine-hole golf course to eighteen holes. The most complete conceptualization of an expanded course was presented in a written report prepared by Golf Services Unlimited, Inc. in February 1988 (see Exhibit 1 for map of proposed expansion). That report states that:


During the clearing operation, great care will be exercised to save all specimen trees and other woody growth that would enhance the playing characteristics of the holes. All areas abutting the various holes will be kept in their natural state so that the integrity of Highland Park is maintained.


Nevertheless, these same consultants confided to then-mayor Tony Salvo that virtually every tree would need to be cut down in order to construct the course (per Tony Salvo, personal communication). At best, what would remain of Salem Woods would be strips of wooded area between fairways and a few small patches of trees within unbuildable wetland areas. That would not be a forest ecosystem.


In order to function as a forest ecosystem and maintain biodiversity, there must be sufficient acreage of continuous woods to support breeding and feeding territories of wildlife species. This is not possible when forest areas are “fragmented” through development.  Fragmentation is, in fact, one of the two major cause of habitat destruction and the consequent loss of global biodiversity.


Constructing an additional nine holes would, at a minimum, fragment Salem Woods with golf fairways, leaving only small patches of wooded areas. These wooded patches, isolated from each other, would not be a forest ecosystem any more than patches of trees in the yards of houses on a rural street could be considered a forest.


The loss of species from fragmentation of Salem Woods would be dramatic.  This past summer, our comparison of vegetation diversity between areas in Salem Woods and comparable habitats within the Olde Salem Greens boundaries was completed (see Appendix). Sixty-five different plant species were identified within three Salem Woods habitats while only thirty different species were identified within the comparable golf course habitats. The bulk of the golf course land, the fairway areas, of course, contain very little vegetation diversity.  The differences in diversity of animal species on the golf course and in Salem Woods would be expected to be even more dramatic since wild animals require sufficient area for territories while plant species do not. Without doubt, fragmentation and loss of large portions of Salem Woods due to golf course expansion would result in significant loss of biodiversity.


It should also be noted that a vernal pool has been discovered since the golf course expansion plan was prepared in 1988.  That pool has been certified by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. Because vernal pools contain a variety of rare and endangered species, they are afforded some protection, specifically:


·       Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act Regulations (310 CMR 10.00) would protect the vernal pool itself and up to 100 feet beyond the pool's margin, preventing construction of any kind in the affected area.

·       Massachusetts Surface Water Quality Standards (314 CMR 4.00) prohibit discharges into certified vernal pools, thereby prohibiting any runoff of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals into the affected area.

·       Lowering of the water table due to drawdown from any proposed wells on the golf course which could adversely affect the vernal pool and surrounding wetland areas would probably require an environmental impact assessment and hydrological analysis, and would more than likely end up being prohibited.


At present, the existence of the nine-hole Olde Salem Greens golf course adjacent to Salem Woods actually results in a biodiversity in the area which is greater than if only one but not both of the venues existed. For example, there are species found in the more sunny stream habitats of the golf course which are not found within Salem Woods and there are numerous species in Salem Woods that are not found—and that could not survive--on the golf course. The destruction of either venue would result in habitat loss, diminished biodiversity, and a less healthy ecosystem.


Salem Woods is a small remnant of the once-expansive forests in Salem and, as such, is a valuable resource for the community. It is a place where wild plants and animals can still survive, and where citizens can enjoy the outdoors.  Equally important, it is a natural laboratory in which students of all ages can learn valuable lessons about their environment and about the complex relationships that support life and biodiversity on our planet. The ecological and social impact of the loss of Salem Woods would be significant and detrimental to the City of Salem.


Exhibit 1 about here (1988 map of Highland Park with 18-holes)


3.  The Economic Case Against Expansion


The premise for current efforts to expand Olde Salem Greens (OSG) is a long-held belief among expansion advocates that the existing course is a great “cash cow” that produces more than $250,000 for City programs. This belief is unsupported by objective business analysis, and creates the erroneous impression that course expansion would create even more profits for a cash-strapped City.  An objective examination of golf course revenues and expenses indicates that the course produced less than $16,000 for the City in FY2003.  And FY2004 is likely to put the course in red ink.


            Poor Financial Performance of OSG


Data obtained from the course manager, the superintendent of Parks & Recreation, the City Finance officer, the City Human Resources department, and the Department of Public Works indicate that the course generated revenues of about $549,000 in FY 2003 (down for the third year in a row). The City contributed $533,000 in direct and indirect spending on the course in FY2003, resulting in net cash to the City Treasury of only $16,000. This is sharply at odds with the $250,000 touted by golf boosters.


Why the disparity between cash cow myth and reality?  The confusion comes from a failure to account for all the costs of running OSG, thereby sending a false indication of profitability.


Golf course profitability has mistakenly been determined as follows (FY2003):


Course Revenues


Operating Budget


Profit (contribution to City programs)



This measure of profitability would be accurate if the operating budget of $307,000 covered all costs.  But it doesn’t come close.  Cash, materials, water, employee time, golf course employee benefits, and loan repayments must be provided from the City treasury and many City departments to keep the golf course running.  Here are the larger items, none of which are charged to the course:


·       Eight million gallons of water in the average year ($27,000, less in rainy FY2003)

·       Annual principal and interest payment on the clubhouse construction loan ($50,000)

·       Health and pension benefits for the course’s full-time employees ($32,600)

·       A “budget adjustment” ($49,600 in FY 2003; there has been such an adjustment in each of the last three years at a minimum)

·       Installation of water meters by Public Works in November 2003 ($25,000)

·       Management and support overhead in the Park & Rec headquarters and City Human Resources department ($45,000)


Overlooking these real costs creates the appearance of profitable.  Actual profitability is represented in the(delete) Exhibit 2.  Once all direct and indirect costs are reflected, the real economic contribution of OSG is very close to breakeven. 



Three Myths about Olde Salem Greens Operating Costs


Myth #1: Water is a non-cost item.  The course shouldn’t be charged for the use of City water.  It’s free.

Reality: All water consumed within Salem—by residents, businesses, public schools, and government—has an economic cost to the City.  According the Water & Sewer Department, the City must pay to gather, treat, and distribute every gallon, no matter who uses it.  The City reimburses itself by charging residents and business for their metered use.  Taxpayers then absorb the cost of all other water uses—such as the 8 million gallons typically used by OSG each year ($27,000).


Myth #2: Full-time golf course personnel work for other City departments during the winter. Thus, a portion of their salaries and benefits shouldn’t be charged to the course.

Reality: According the Park Superintendent Bollen and Course Manager Drew, these personnel are not reassigned during the winter. They spend those months on grounds and equipment maintenance. The only exception is during a snow emergency, when they may be asked to help with plowing.


Myth #3:  The golf course should not be charged for the roughly $50,000 annual clubhouse loan payment.  The course had the $500,000 needed to build the clubhouse “in the till” but the City needed that money to pay other bills.

Reality: Yes, the course collected over $500,000 in revenues the year the clubhouse was built, but those revenues were needed to pay course operating expenses. Had those revenues been diverted to clubhouse construction, taxpayers would have paid the entire tab for operating the course that year.



Exhibit 2 around here (P&L)


Course Expansion Would Produce Major Losses


Expansion of the course to18-holes will not cure Olde Salem Green’s anemic performance. Instead, it would produce major losses of between about $156,000 and $319,000 each year for 20 years, depending on the actual cost of construction. This forecast is based on reasonable assumptions regarding construction costs, the cost of operating an expanded course, and the continued availability of low interest rates and a 20-year loan. The forecast does not burden the new course with additional park/rec overheads or non-repeating charges (such as the 2003 cost of installing water meters).  It also assumes that the three-year decline in golf participation will end and moderately reverse itself.  Even with these reasonable assumptions, an 18-hole course would blow a large hole in the City Treasury every year for 20 years (the assumed loan period).


Golf Participation is in Decline


Fewer and fewer rounds of golf are being played in the United States and overseas.  Per the National Golf Federation, total rounds played in the United States have dropped nationally and in our region every year for the past three years. The decline has hit private, public, and municipal course equally. To make matters worse, hundreds of new courses, such as Peabody’s new 18-hole course, have come on line just as demand is drying up. Olde Salem Greens is caught in the same downward trend. As Exhibit 3 indicates, its revenues have dropped every year since 2000, even as greens fees have risen annually. The fact is that Salem golfers are playing fewer rounds. 


Too Few Opportunities to Play Golf?


There are currently 49 golf courses on the North Shore alone.  The majority of these are public or municipal courses.



How long the downward slide will continue is anyone’s guess.  As Golf Business Magazine put it, “Few areas have significant demand for daily fee courses . . .With an oversupply of courses in most areas, growth in the golf industry will be very limited.” 


Exhibit 3  Revenue Decline at Olde Salem Greens, FY2000 to FY2003

Source:  City of Salem data


With demand dropping, construction of an additional nine holes at Olde Salem Greens would simply add to the current demand-supply imbalance in the area.  Course operators would likely respond by lowering greens fees to attract patrons.  The first to do so would gain a short-term advantage, an advantage that would evaporate as other courses responded with price cuts of their own.  The resulting price war would reduce revenues for all courses in the area.


A Sagging Industry

“Lack of growth in the number of golfers continues to inhibit any material growth in rounds played or facility revenues, making facility owners and operators vulnerable to increased competition and the poor economy.”

                          National Golf Foundation press release, March 2003



“The golf boom has fizzled unambiguously in the past few years, and threatens to become a king-sized bust. . . . Memories of the sudden decline in national tennis participation . . . haunt golf’s boosters and industry insiders.”

“A Rough Round: Why golf’s prospects are dimming,” Barrons, July 28, 2003   



A Cautionary Tale: Natick’s White Elephant


Salem’s elected officials and planners, and the Park&Rec Commission, should consider the case of Natick’s municipal nine-hole golf course, which opened with high expectations of major profits in mid-2001.  There—as in Salem today—golf advocates touted a great opportunity to boost city finances.  Natick’s golf boosters even had a consultant’s study to back them up. But those high expectations evaporated once the course was built.  As described by MetroWest News:


A consultant’s report dated August 31, 2001—one day before the course opened—predicted that the municipal links would earn a $100,000 profit its first year of operation.  In the second year, profits were supposed to reach nearly $140,000. . . .


Instead, the course . . . has been an unqualified financial disaster.  It lost about $189,000 in fiscal 2003, even before the $280,000 yearly debt payment for course construction.


The news doesn’t get much better this fiscal year, as Town Administrator Philip Lemnios predicted a $435,000 deficit, including debt and operating deficit. (Source: Jon Brodkin, “A golf course project gone financially wrong,” MetroNews West, 7 September 2003.)



[newpaper stories here]
4. Over-Commitment of Salem Parkland to Golf


Yet another reason not to expand OSG hinges on the equitable allocation of parkland within the City. Salem has roughly 40,000 residents, and its Park and Recreation Department is charged with serving their diverse interests--in golf, baseball, boating, tennis, walking, birding, hiking bicycling, basketball, among others.  But how well are those interests being served?


Of the City’s 445 acres of parkland, 95 acres (21 percent) are currently devoted exclusively to golf.  The percentage of golfers in the City, however, is far less than 21 percent.  How many of Salem’s residents are golfers?  No one knows with certainty since the course does not count the individual residents it serves.  Nevertheless, a reasonable approximation can be made using the following data:


·       Only 9 percent of the US population plays golf, according to the National Golf Foundation

·       247 Olde Salem Greens season passes were sold to Salem residents in FY2003; assuming that this represents only 10 percent of resident golfers, there are 2,470 golfers in Salem (6 percent of the population)


These data suggest that the percentage of Salem residents who play golf is somewhere between 6 percent and 9 percent. This means that the current allocation of City parkland is unreasonably skewed toward golf, as indicated by Exhibit 4.  Should 6-9 percent of City residents have exclusive use of 21 percent of City parkland?


Exhibit 4



Expansion of Olde Salem Greens would aggravate this imbalance.  As described in the 1988 feasibility study commissioned by the City, an expanded course would take all of Salem Woods (129 acres), leaving only swampy areas and ribbons of trees between fairways. This taking would result in slightly more than half of all City parkland being allocated to the City’s small cadre of golf enthusiasts (see Exhibit 5).  Would any reasonable City official see this allocation as equitable or responsible?  Would the Park District or Park & Recreation Commission see this as fulfilling their obligation to Salem residents?


Exhibit 5




5.  Water Use at Olde Salem Greens


Critics of golf course expansion have long argued that the course should be charged for the use of City water, and rightly so.  As indicated earlier, taxpayers currently absorb the cost of supplying water to the course.  But until recently, the amount of water used by Olde Salem Greens has not been understood.  Thanks to the fact-finding process initiated by the Council, we now have an estimate. Better still, meters were installed in November 2002, which means that metered data are being gathered on a monthly basis.


Note: FY2003 through early FY2004 was a period of near-record rainfall.  Thus, the first full year of metering will not be very representative of the water use of the course.


Course manager Richard Drew has kept track of irrigation at Olde Salem Greens for a number of years.  Based on watering frequency and sprinkler capacities, he estimates that the course consumes approximately 8 million gallons of water in a typical year. He has high confidence in that figure.  Per the City Water and Sewer Department, that level of water use would be billed at almost $27,000.  One would expect that an 18-hole course would consume twice this volume of water, creating two serious problems:


1.     Per Brian Thibodeau, head of the City of Salem Water Department, the current water supply infrastructure may be incapable of supporting 16 million gallons of use.

2.     Diverting an additional 8 million gallons of water to OSG is bound to impinge on other residential, government, and business uses of water.  Increasing development is already straining the available water supply for Salem and other North Shore communities.  Much of that water comes from the Ipswich River, which now has “endangered” status because of the high and growing demands being placed upon it.


The question for City decision-makers is this: “What is the best use of our scarce water resources?” Watering acres and acres of fairways and greens for a tiny percentage of City residents is certainly not the best use.


6. Preservation of Salem Woods as a Natural Forest


The case against golf course expansion is powerful; so too is the case in favor of preserving Salem Woods as a natural forest. The Woods in its natural state is a place for learning, for discovery, and for restoring the human spirit.  It is also a refuge for dozens of plant and animal species with which we share this planet. (See Appendix for a species inventory.) A hundred years ago, Theodore Roosevelt made the same preservation case in planning our National Park System.  Then, as now, the idea of saving pieces of the landscape as nature created them was hotly opposed by development-minded interests:


“It’s not doing anyone any good.”

“We need that land to generate revenue.”

“It will only benefit a few people.”

“It’s not safe.”


Remarkably, these are the very same words used by golf boosters who today oppose preservation of Salem Woods and who wish to develop it—and at a time when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is losing forest, wetland, and farmland at a rate of 40 acres per day. 


Today, we honor Teddy Roosevelt for his foresight and for the courage he demonstrated in preserving important tracts of the American landscape for future generations. Wasn’t he wise? Wasn’t he smart? Without his leadership, the great National Parks that millions now enjoy would no longer exist. Hopefully, future citizens of Salem will look back at today’s elected officials and Council members and say, “Weren’t they wise, weren’t they smart to have saved this beautiful parcel of woods, marsh, and meadows for us.”


Preserve Salem Woods!






·       Salem Woods Plant inventory

·       Salem Woods Bird inventory

·       Comparison of Vegetation Diversity in Various Habitats within Salem Woods and Olde Salem Greens