If you walked along the southern end of the Bay Creek housing development this time last year, you’d likely be playing on the back nine holes of the golf club’s second course.
The new owners of the property have a different vision in mind. They already closed down those nine holes — 27 still remain — and plan to let the land “turn back to what it looked like 100 years ago,” said James Sinnott, president and chief operating officer of Preserve Communities, which took over Bay Creek late last year.
Think native grasses and trees, trails and plenty of avian habitat.
“Where the golf holes were, we actually tore out all the infrastructure, tore out the bunkers, the irrigation system, things like that, because we’re going to let all that go back to nature,” Sinnott said. “We stopped fertilizing. All the chemicals, all the things you have to do on a golf course stopped. And it’s going to be reverting back to nature.”
The developer, which bought the 1,720-acre property from Sinclair Broadcast Group, has placed about 350 acres of its undeveloped land into a permanent conservation easement with the Southern Conservation Trust. That means building is prohibited on about a fifth of Bay Creek’s land beyond a few minor structures.
Instead, Preserve plans to create what it’s calling a nature preserve complete with kayak launches, a community garden, education center and more. Though most of it will be open only to community members, the company aims to host field trips for local students, tours with nature groups and so on.
It is also creating public trails right outside the community’s gates, and a golf cart path straight into downtown Cape Charles to allow members to better integrate with the historic community and allow them to skip cars — and the pollution they bring — altogether.
Bay Creek includes hundreds of homes owned by retirees, used as vacation rentals or single-family homes, as well as a golf club. The houses are grouped by style in mini-communities within the larger development.
The mission of Atlanta-based Preserve Communities, which specializes in large, master-planned development, Sinnott said, is to create “thoughtful development.” But the conservation plan is also a business-centered one.
When Bay Creek was built in the 1990s, “golf was everything,” Sinnott said, but it’s not anymore. “Bay Creek kind of kicked off Cape Charles’ renaissance. Then Cape Charles kept going and Bay Creek stalled.”
Now, he said, the “number one amenity” people want in communities is access to nature and trails.
So the company looked at the nine holes of the second course, which took up lots of land at the property’s southern end and thought, “if we’re going to do conservation on this property and create this nature preserve, this is the place to do it.”
The company has set aside about another 340 acres for future building, some of which will start soon. Whereas the current 900 or so lots are sprawling, the newer development will be more compact, creating denser communities.
The large southern tract where the golf holes were torn up, which fronts the Chesapeake Bay, will include what Preserve is calling “Base Camp.” There’ll be an open pavilion, fishing shack, community garden center, oyster shucking station, arts and craft building and kayak launches. Members can use the spaces, and there will be children’s camps and education as well. The company wants to bring in local growers to run an organic garden that will send food “farm to table” to the club’s restaurants.
Trails designed by Avid Trails will meander the property, including at the northern end right outside the main entrance to Bay Creek.
On a foggy morning last week, Sinnott walked through a damp patch where Preserve aims to clear a main public trail this spring, a quiet tree-filled area just yards from the road.
“A trail was clearly here at some point but was abandoned,” he said. “We’ve made a conscious decision to open this up to the public.”
In addition to attracting more residents, the conserved land will likely attract more avian inhabitants.
“Birds, birds, birds, birds, birds,” Sinnott said when describing the move’s impact for the natural environment.
The 350 acres contain a mix of land types that encapsulate coastal Virginia: mudflats, beaches, open fields, pine-hardwood forest, tidal creeks.
On a site visit by the Southern Conservation Trust, biologists said in a report they encountered hundreds of plant and animal species including Virginia birds of “greatest conservation need” such as the snowy egret, bald eagle, eastern kingbird, American oystercatcher, green heron and more. Trees on the property include sweetgum, blackberry, Virginia creeper, wax myrtle, sassafras and many others.
Taking out the chemicals formerly used to maintain that section of the golf course “can’t hurt” the bay, Sinnott added.
“It’s not that it was a toxic dump, but (this is) taking out nitrates.”
After reseeding to accelerate native grass reclamation and setting up the areas for activities, mostly the developers plan to just leave the land alone. The easement won’t allow for much else anyway, Sinnott said.
“There’s no going back.”
Katherine Hafner, 757-222-5208, email@example.com