Nearly two months into the year-long project to refurbish the Bobby Jones Golf Course in Buckhead, residents and others have raised concerns over the number of trees being torn down as part of the plan.
“It’s horrific. It’s raping the whole land,” said Liles Nickerson, who lives on Whitmore Drive, within about 25 yards of the north end of the course. “… Couldn’t they have worked with what they had here instead of ruining the whole topography?”
The 144-acre course, located within Atlanta Memorial Park, was built in 1932 as a tribute to golf legend Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones Jr. It was sold by the city of Atlanta to the state in 2016 as part of a plan to reconfigure the course from an 18-hole one to a nine-hole reversible one.
The $23 million project also calls for moving the Bitsy Grant Tennis Center’s 12 hard courts to higher ground on the property and building a parking deck under six of them (the center and its 13 clay courts will stay in place). The deck will have two points of access: one each for tennis and golf players.
The course will also have a 19th hole restaurant and pro shop building that will also house the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame, and Georgia State University’s teams will practice there. The course’s clubhouse, which dates back to 1941, will not be part of the project and will be leased back to the city to be used as an arts venue/event space.
But residents are upset about the trees being removed, said Christina Gibson, canopy conservation coordinator for Trees Atlanta, a nonprofit whose mission is to protect the city’s tree canopy. Gibson said she was first contacted in June by individuals living nearby when trees were being removed to make way for the new Path Foundation trail being constructed along Woodward Way that will one day encircle the park and link to the BeltLine. At that time she first saw the schematic for the course redesign, and in November she visited the site.
“I noticed that the plans did not incorporate or show the existing large patch of forest in the center of the golf course, which reportedly provided critical bird and wildlife habitat along the creek,” Gibson said. “Trees Atlanta encouraged the concerned residents to get involved with stakeholders and decision-makers to positively impact the plans.”
Marty Elgison, president of the Bobby Jones Golf Course Foundation, the nonprofit that is spearheading the project, defended the removal of trees, saying nearly half of them were dead, dying or in bad shape.
“I haven’t heard of any complaints about the trees in the last couple of weeks since we started the tree removal,” he said. “(But) I have had conversations with several people who had concerns about the number of trees we planned to remove. We had an arborist come out and audit every single tree on the property. There are 1,182 trees over 12 inches in diameter. Of those 1,182, 143 are in good condition, 12 percent. Over 40 percent of the trees are either in poor condition or in dead or hazardous condition.”
Elgison said he won’t know how many trees will be cut down until the plan is finalized, but the foundation has made an effort to save some.
“We’ve probably saved a dozen trees that were to be removed by shifting greens or fairways. So we’re trying to save every healthy tree we can,” he said. “The landscaping plan is not finished yet, but just around the new parking deck and new maintenance area, we’re planting over 140 new trees. I’m sure additional trees will be planted along Northside Drive and the northwest corner of the course.”
Elgison also said the foundation wants to “substantially improve the environmental conditions on the property,” and is doing so by removing more than 2½ acres of impervious surface where the center’s hard courts and parking lot now sit.
Catherine Spillman, executive director of the Atlanta Memorial Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that aims to protect and maintain the park, said the conservancy has had no direct involvement with the course since it was sold to the state. But through three 2013 meetings where residents provided input on possible plans to keep the course at 18 holes or convert it to nine reversible ones, the conservancy sided with the nine-hole option as part of a master plan for improving the park.
“We are pleased to see the project moving forward and have done our best to connect all interested parties, including the surrounding neighborhoods, so that concerns and ideas can be shared with the Bobby Jones Golf Course Foundation. AMPC remains focused on our three core areas of connectivity, greenspace and watershed, and is looking forward to breaking ground on several projects this year,” she said, referring to both the park plans already mentioned and other improvements, including a new playground that opened in 2017 and a future trail on the passive side of the park.
Elgison said the project, which started Nov. 6 and is expected to be complete Nov. 1, is progressing well.
“Right now we are on time and on budget, and that’s mostly because we’ve had great weather,” he said. “The most important thing for this project is rain. It’s the thing that slows us up or stops us completely. So it’s been kind of an unusually dry November and December. So that’s helped us quite a bit. So we’re probably a little bit ahead of schedule.”
Nickerson and Gibson said they are concerned about the animals that call the course home and hope the trees’ removal won’t put them in danger.
“It’s the emotion of disturbing the environment,” Nickerson said. “I feel like this is located between I-75 and I-85 and all the pollution from that, and (what a) wonderful job this massive tree canopy had provided.”