Originally created 12/14/03

Augusta National buys to expand borders



As Augusta National Golf Club continues buying land in the Berckmans Road area, homeowners there are falling into three categories:

Those who have sold. Those who are staying put. And those who will sell for "the right price."

That right price is getting higher.

When the heavy buying began in 1999, the National's brokers paid an average of $222,000 an acre to homeowners.

The price has more than doubled since The Augusta Chronicle reported on the club's interest in the property last year. In 2003, brokers paid an average of $450,000 an acre, according to an analysis of deeds on file with the city.

The prices being paid for Berckmans Road-area properties are comparable to those for houses three times as large in Summerville and Forest Hills.

Limited-liability companies tied to the National have acquired at least 115 acres of land, all but 17 acres surrounding the golf club. The land includes commercial property fronting Washington Road, 33 acres of undeveloped brush land behind a Publix supermarket on Washington Road, and residential property - mostly in Berckman Heights and Berckman Road Gardens, west of the club.

The companies had spent a combined $24 million when The Chronicle reported on the acquisitions in May 2002. According to property records, the National has now spent $28.3 million, including money paid to brokerage companies owned by club members Boone Knox and Thomas Blanchard Jr.

The National says the property is for long-term use, such as parking and storage, but that hasn't prevented neighborhood residents from talking about other possibilities. Those range from a new leg connecting Berckmans with Alexander Drive and River Watch Parkway to housing for Augusta National members.

A $4.5 million widening of Alexander Drive, which leads from Washington Road to River Watch Parkway, is scheduled to be completed by 2006. George Patty, the executive director of the Augusta-Richmond County Planning Commission, said it would make good sense from a traffic standpoint to join Alexander, which is being expanded from two to five lanes, with a new Berckmans Road - but that has not been discussed.

The land-locked golf club has shown a desire to expand in recent years and has had to make deals to get the land to do so. To lengthen the course 285 yards for the 2002 Masters Tournament, the National swapped land with Augusta Country Club, and it has an option on an additional 9.32 acres of that neighbor's property, according to documents filed with the county.

Tom Klose, 51, is one resident holding out, but he said money is not the issue. He says he knows he could make a good profit if he sold his late mother's house on Heath Drive, but he isn't budging.

Surveying the yard and the woods behind his house recently, Mr. Klose pointed to tea olive trees, a camellia bush, a live oak and a magnolia tree that were growing there before he was born. His mother bought the property in 1946 from a member of the Bailie family, who owned Fruitland Nurseries on Washington Road.

"It's a family thing," Mr. Klose said. "You didn't play army on this property. You didn't ride your bike up and down Heath Drive. You didn't roll down this driveway in a little red wagon while someone stood at the street to look out for cars."

Cashing in One former Berckman Heights resident, Clyde T. Pilcher, is taking full advantage of the National's interest in the area. He has sold his house at the corner of Heath Drive and Berckmans Road, and now he and his business partner, Gordon B. Hardy, are buying other properties the National covets.

Mr. Pilcher, the chief executive officer of Budget Sewer Service, has been profiting off Augusta National and its golf tournament for decades. While living in the brick house along Berckmans Road, he made a tidy sum during Masters Week by letting patrons park on his property.

Charging $10 a car, he earned between $300 and $1,000 a day, providing coolers of beer and soft drinks and cooking barbecued ribs for his guests.

Since then, he has collected $900,000 by selling his home and the house next door, which together sat on less than an acre of land and had a city-assessed value of about $165,000. The two properties cost Mr. Pilcher about $196,700.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pilcher and Mr. Hardy have bought four other parcels in the area, according to county records, including two for which the National was negotiating. A company registered to Mr. Pilcher, AMAP LLC, bought a house on Heath Drive that lies between two properties already acquired by the National.

In July 2001, before Mr. Pilcher sold his house to the National, he and Mr. Hardy paid $95,000 for two properties on Heath Drive whose owner had died. A vacant house sits on the land.

In June 2002, Mr. Pilcher and Mr. Hardy bought two vacant lots along Berckmans Road for $140,000.

In May, AMAP paid $100,000 for the house on Heath Drive.

None of the five properties has sold. At least three other property owners said they've been approached to sell by Mr. Pilcher.

Mr. Pilcher and Mr. Hardy would not comment for this article.

Albert Roesel, 86, of Statesboro, Ga., from whom they bought the Berckmans lots, said he didn't sell to Augusta National because the club didn't offer him enough.

In January 2002, Blanchard & Calhoun, acting as a broker for Mr. Knox, offered him $320,000 for the two lots and a house on Cherry Lane, which Mr. Roesel inherited from his sister.

Two months later, Mr. Roesel sold the Cherry Lane house to a young family for $400,000 and the lots to Mr. Pilcher and Mr. Hardy for $140,000. Mr. Roesel said he divided the money among his seven children.

"It was just dumb," he said of Blanchard & Calhoun's offer. "That property is 400 feet from the fence at the Augusta National."

Cards on the table Based on interviews with dozens of residents west of the club, conducted recently and in 2002, the National has shown interest in buying homes along Heath Drive, Stanley Drive, McCarthy Drive, Hillside Lane, Hemlock Hill Road and Cherry Lane.

The interest appears to stop at the south side of the southern leg of Heath Drive.

For four years, homeowners in the club's priority areas were approached by Blanchard & Calhoun Real Estate Co. and Knox Development Corp. Acquired properties were then recorded under the names of 10 limited-liability companies, information the Chronicle reported in 2002. Limited-liability companies are often set up by land buyers to take advantage of tax breaks, protect their personal assets in case of lawsuits and, in some cases, keep partners' names secret.

All 10 can be traced to the National through addresses and post office boxes linking them to Blanchard & Calhoun or Hull, Towill, Norman, Barrett & Salley, a law firm that represents the club.

In the past year, though, the National has begun approaching property owners under its own name. Residents say Walton L. "Buzzy" Johnson, the senior director of the Masters Tournament, has knocked on doors and mailed letters written on the club's letterhead, copies of which The Chronicle obtained.

Mr. Johnson would not discuss the issue with the newspaper, referring questions to club spokesman Glenn Greenspan. Mr. Greenspan responded to a list of written questions with a written statement:

"We are proud residents of Augusta and the National Hills area. Any land we acquired is for long-term use such as parking and storage, and will be utilized in a way that will not negatively affect the community. We have always strived to be good neighbors and we will continue to do so in the future."

In control One property the club bought doesn't quite fit its pattern of acquisitions.

Through FTD LLC, the National owns 17 acres of land at the dead end of Eisenhower Drive, across the street from Eisenhower Park and about a mile from the club's Magnolia Lane entrance. The Y-shaped tract flanks eight acres owned by Beasley Broadcasting Group Inc., which has three AM radio transmitter towers, and the empty WRDW studio owned by James Brown in the late 1960s and early '70s. The property is wedged between train tracks and River Watch Parkway but has no ramp access to the parkway.

FTD LLC bought it for $350,000 in 2001, according to Richmond County property records.

Asked about the land, Mr. Johnson referred back to Mr. Greenspan's written response.

Mr. Patty, of the Augusta-Richmond County Planning Commission, said parking, with a shuttle service to the golf course, is the most likely purpose for the Eisenhower Drive property. It may be part of a contingency plan if the land being acquired near the club's borders doesn't work out, he said.

City officials say they don't know what the National plans to do with any of its land, and they acknowledge they haven't tried very hard to find out.

The city plans to move forward with a $1.1 million project to provide sewers to the Berckmans neighborhoods, requiring homeowners to pay $1,500 hookup fees, despite not knowing how long the houses being served will be around.

Utilities Director Max Hicks said he discovered that the National was buying up property in the area near the end of 2001 and attended a meeting at the club soon after with B. William Scammon, the campus development and facilities director for the National.

Mr. Hicks said he was told that the National didn't know what it was going to do with the land but that it wouldn't conflict with the sewer plans.

"I didn't press them on it," he said.

Mr. Hicks said that bids on the sewer project will be let next summer and that residents should see service by November 2005. He said it will probably take decades for the National to take over the area, which is plenty of time for the city to get its money's worth out of the sewer project.

Another city project involving the area, a plan to widen Berckmans Road to three lanes, has been shelved indefinitely. Mr. Patty said the project is on hold because the intersections at both ends of the road don't facilitate heavy traffic flow.

The only certainty is that the National is now in a better position to control what goes on near the club. David Moretz, a commercial realty agent for Rex Property & Construction Management in Augusta, said that if the club didn't buy the property, it could be used by profiteers such as street vendors and companies that set up corporate hospitality tents at many golf tournaments.

"They want their boundary," Mr. Moretz said.

Reach Mike Wynn at (706) 823-3218 or Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225.