The bluffs along the White River near Highland Golf and Country Club on West 56th Street offer picturesque views of the waterway like few others in the city.
Unimpeded by progress, they’re home to 300-year-old foliage and scads of wildlife.
But the 39 homeowners in the area, living south of the 18-hole course’s southern border of West 52nd Street, fret about the future of the bluffs if Highland proceeds with controversial plans to sell 20 acres for residential development.
Leaders want to spend $3 million on improvements to the aging club, to build a new pool house and tennis courts and to renovate the clubhouse. Selling the land to a developer, which would build 48 homes, provides them the cash for the upgrades.
In response, neighbors opposing the development have mounted a fundraising campaign in hopes of buying and preserving the land. They so far have collected $2.3 million in pledges and are partnering with the Central Indiana Land Trust in an effort to sway club membership to drop the development.
“When you get back in there and look out, it’s the best view of the White River in the city of Indianapolis,” said the land trust’s executive director, Cliff Chapman. “And we have the opportunity to make it open to the public.”
The battle that’s shaping up seems to have landed Highland in an uncomfortable position. Reached at work, Club President Paul DeCoursey declined to speak to IBJ, relaying a message through his company’s secretary that he’s “not willing to give any information at this time.”
Project developer Highland Estates Development LLC also isn’t talking. Partner Brad Litz, a local real estate agent and developer, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.
Dubbed Highland Estates, the development would be built on the eastern boundary of the 152-acre property, along the west bank of the White River across from the Rocky Ripple neighborhood. It would feature 14 estate-type homes within a gated community, 14 garden-style houses and 20 duplex homes, according to documents filed with the city.
Prices would range from $450,000 to more than $2 million. The developer is seeking to rezone the property and could present its plans to the Metropolitan Development Commission in June.
Highland expects many of the homes to be purchased by club members, the developer says in the documents.
Development plans surfaced last summer when Highland Estates Development first sought to rezone the land. Fierce opposition from neighbors prompted it to regroup and reduce the size of the Highland Estates footprint from 25 acres to 20 acres. Other changes include reconfiguring the layout to move the townhomes away from the river and closer to the golf course, while reducing their heights.
Neighbors such as Anne Doran still aren’t sold.
“The neighborhood will oppose efforts at rezoning every step of the way,” she said.
Doran is one of the 39 homeowners south of West 52nd. Highland is bordered to the west by Grandview Drive, which is just east of Michigan Road.
Doran bought her home 11 years ago and described the neighborhood as an “eclectic” mix of houses—some of which date to the 1940s and sit on up to two acres of land.
Just south of Doran’s neighborhood is the 25,000-square-foot estate of local businesswoman and philanthropist Christel DeHaan, adding to the vastness of the area.
“There’s a tremendous amount of green space there without housing on it,” Doran said. “And even when there is housing, it’s not very dense at all.”
In its filing with the city, Highland Estates Development devotes a section of its plan to tree preservation and maintains that much of the most heavily wooded portions of the development, occupied by the largest lots, will remain.
“Additionally the White River frontage, consisting largely of steep, wooded slopes, will not be disturbed,” the developer said in the filing. “However, due to unknown development footprints, specific tree preservation areas cannot be designated.”
Highland Country Club was organized in 1919 and opened two years later. The club boasts about 250 members, $3.5 million in revenue, and $1.3 million in assets, according to its latest Form 990 tax filing.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the residential project, the developer makes clear in its pitch to the city that Highland Estates “is critical to the long-term viability and maintenance of the club.”
The club has signed a letter of intent to sell the land to the developer, possibly making it more difficult for the opposition to intervene.
Doran, meanwhile, said she and her neighbors recognize that Highland is a community asset but believe conservancy is the better alternative for the neighborhood.
“It’s a very calm, tranquil area, for the most part,” she said.
Highland, however, is in a crowded golf corridor that includes Broadmoor Country Club about a half mile to the west and Saddlebrook Golf Course only about a mile past Broadmoor.
Saddlebrook, developed in 1994 by Indianapolis-based RN Thompson, is closed following a foreclosure dispute between the lender and owner, Indianapolis-based Cooprider Golf & Recreation Inc., which was more than $2.4 million in debt.
An auction was held in late March, and the new owner is set to close on the property within a week, said Seth Seaton, spokesman for Key Auctioneers.
Seaton declined to name the buyer but said it intends to reopen the course next year.
The golfing industry took a big hit during the recession, leading to scores of course closings across the country.
Even so, an overabundance of courses remains, said Mike David, executive director of the Indiana Golf Association.
“It’s still pretty cutthroat to get players to your facility,” he said.•