When Mike Lemon surveys the 36-hole golf course at Indian Spring Country Club in Silver Spring, he doesn't think of warm summer afternoons sinking putts with his buddies. Instead, the project manager for Winchester Homes, the Bethesda-based home builder, imagines houses. Five hundred and sixty-five of them, to be exact.
Winchester Homes is in the early stages of developing a portion of the 68-year-old club's land into housing and a new golf course, which would replace the existing two courses. If all its plans are approved by the county, the developer would eventually take control of the club's operations. It's one of several projects in the county that will seek to replace sand traps with subdivisions.
The county is supporting plans to build housing, a new elementary school and a new golf course on the site of the publicly owned Gunpowder Golf Club, which straddles the Montgomery-Prince George's border. On the site of a driving range on Rockville Pike, near the White Flint Metro station, Pennsylvania-based developer LCOR has plans for a $450 million, 32-acre mixed-use project.
"With the lack of land resources in the county, developers are looking to redevelop golf courses," Lemon said.
But the makeover of Indian Spring has run into resistance from the Montgomery County Department of Park and Planning. Last month, the department rejected Winchester's preliminary proposal for the site, saying it would encroach on environmental buffer zones designed to protect the ecologically sensitive Northwest Branch Stream and Bel Pre Creek, which border the Indian Spring property on the east and south, respectively. About one-third of the club's land lies in the buffer area.
The department criticized Winchester's attempt to count part of the new golf course as the environmental buffer, even though only a portion of the club's existing two courses lies in the buffer area. The department said construction of a course would negatively affect the surrounding environment.
"From a natural resources management perspective, forest habitat provides greater wildlife value than a golf hole," the staff wrote.
Besides lacking foliage, the planning staff said, a golf course is built to drain quickly -- the opposite of what the existing wetlands do. And maintaining the course will require the use of pesticides and fertilizers, which would then run off into the adjacent streams.
The upshot of the planning staff's recommendation is that Winchester must now go back to the drawing board, Lemon said.
Part of the solution, Lemon said, may be for Winchester to add land to a preserve, where it will remain undeveloped. For every eight acres the developer agrees to conserve, it will receive one acre of credit -- basically, one less acre it has to alter to satisfy the planning board's demands.
The owners of Indian Spring, who are descendants of the original owner, Washington area builder Abraham S. Kay, are counting on the success of the redevelopment to reinvigorate their club.
In recent years, Indian Spring, like many other private social clubs around the country, has seen its membership dwindle. Former members such as Bruce Kipnis of Potomac, whose parents belonged to the club in the 1950s and '60s, chose to join other clubs, such as Woodmont Country Club or Congressional. Kipnis prefers the links at Woodmont, whose amenities he described as "a cut above" those of Indian Spring.
Other baby boomers are choosing not to join clubs at all. Nationwide, country clubs have seen their membership decline in recent years, according to an annual report by the McMahon Group, a St. Louis consulting firm to country clubs.
"Since the bursting of the economic bubble in 2000, a significant percentage of clubs have had difficulty maintaining an adequate number of members," the report noted. "The Boomers continue to exhibit an emphasis on activity-oriented lifestyles while placing lesser emphasis on membership in social organizations of all types."
As for members of Generation X, the McMahon report said they are living up to their slacker stereotype: "[Members of the younger generation] are meeting most of life's significant benchmarks a full ten years later than their predecessors. Where club membership made sense at one time for people in their 30s, it is more common to see people joining their first club well into their 40s."
One key to survival, the report found, is having up-to-date facilities.
At Indian Spring, the owners wanted a way to renovate what they had without having to give up their location on Layhill Road in Silver Spring.
"They didn't want to sell and leave the members behind," said Lemon, who estimated the club's membership has declined from a high of about 2,000 in the 1950s to about 700 now.
So Winchester agreed that in addition to building housing and a course, it would renovate the clubhouse, which was built in the late '50s. Residents of the new homes will be granted social memberships, thus giving the club a boost.
Kenneth Greenberg, one of the club's owners, called the deal with Winchester "a chance to give Indian Spring a second life."
Greenberg said the recent setback with Park and Planning officials "is not a deal killer." And he hopes the project will be done in about three years. "Indian Spring should be here for us and our children well into the future," he said.