Upscale golf shakes up the town of Flagstaff

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Two fabulous member-only golf clubs are now almost completed here. These courses, Pine Canyon, laid out by Jay Morrish, and Flagstaff Ranch, the design work of Jerry Pate, are the centerpieces of pricey private developments that are helping turn this part of Arizona upside down.

For a long time, Flagstaff was known mainly for its tourism and as the home of Northern Arizona University; it also had something of a working-class flavor. Now it's also becoming a very popular summer refuge for golfers planning to live on courses amid pine-studded hills in and around this town of about 60,000.

Some people say the momentum for change all started in the early '90s, a couple of years after the building of the private Forest Highlands development - hundreds of houses on highly ranked members-only courses done by Jay Morrish and Tom Weiskopf. One of those courses, the Canyon, is regularly ranked as one of the top courses in the country.

Suddenly, golfers from Central and Southern Arizona decided they want to own a piece of Northern Arizona. They're buying summer houses and condos that sell from $400,000 to $1 million-plus where they can camp out when the temps down south hit the triple digits. Although mountain towns like Prescott and Payson have been the hot spots for awhile, Flagstaff seems to lead the pack right now. "We've sold 120 out of 153 custom lots available so far," says Jim Buckley, director of sales at the Pine Canyon Club.

Part of what's attracting buyers to Flagstaff vs. other places in Arizona is definitely its cooler average temperatures, he says. The town at an elevation of 7,000 feet averages 78 degrees in summer compared with 92 degrees in Prescott and Payson.

"It only takes two to two and half hours to get here, and you're truly out of the heat in Flagstaff," Buckley says. "Most of the buyers come from Phoenix; 65 percent are second home buyers while 35 percent are those planning to live here full-time." But many buyers are also coming from California and Nevada.

The lots at Pine Canyon by themselves cost from $200,000 to $1.2 million. This kind of sales success may be driving up the cost of housing everywhere in town.

"I just moved here, and I think the prices are higher than in Scottsdale," says Sally Williams, a saleswoman at the Flagstaff Ranch golf development. "There's a lack of land and a lack of new construction."

In summer, Flagstaff is loaded with visitors on their way to the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and the Four Corners. If they're interested in playing daily-fee golf along the way, they're largely limited to Continental Golf Club, formerly known as Elden Hills, inside Flagstaff, and Elephant Rocks Golf Club, 30 miles west in the town of Williams.

Although these are moderately priced, interesting places to play, their scenery and conditions don't begin to match the beauty and challenge of Pine Canyon or Flagstaff Ranch.

At Pine Canyon, membership costs $55,000 (non-equity refundable) and is only open to those who buy property at the development. Memberships are limited to 450. If you buy a lot, you don't have to become a member, though. John Beerling, the developer of Pine Canyon, said he chose renowned architect Morrish to lay out his course because "he did such a great job at Stone Canyon, (a golf development Beerling did in Tucson) and we're very pleased with Pine Canyon."

Beerling also says that he considers the steep prices of his custom lots to be "reasonable if you compare it to everything else in the state and you consider the golf course views and the scenery of the peaks and the mountains."

Jeff Steury, sales executive and PGA professional, leads visitors' tours of the course scheduled to be finished in the fall and open for play next spring. The 7,179-yard course lies on what was a historic ranch in Flagstaff just south of the campus of Northern Arizona University. Lots of uphill and downhill lies here; plenty of elevation changes and tees on high pads. Pristine, almost manicured Ponderosa pines line the fairways; the developers spent $2 million removing trees to fight the bark-beetle problem now scourging Arizona forests. "On four or five holes there are actually significant trees on the fairways themselves," Steury noted. Players will be stunned by the scenery on hole after hole of the San Francisco Peaks, mountains topped with snow in winter. "Both 17 and 18 are our signature holes because of their peak views," Steury says. No. 17 is a long par-3 playing 204 yards from the back tees; 18 is a par-4 that measures 487 yards from the back tees.

Just like its sister course - the Stone Canyon Club - Pine Canyon has a No. 19, a par-3 to an island green, where golfers can settle bets. Not only that, but Pine Canyon is near the heart of Flagstaff, just south of the university campus, very close to all those trendy stores and restaurants springing up in town.

Flagstaff Ranch Golf Club and its surrounding development, however, are a few miles west of the town just off Highway 40. This property is being developed by a company headed by Jim Mehen, the man who put together the fabulously successful Forest Highlands and its courses.

But while Forest Highlands rolled right through the planning process to sales success, Mehen almost got trapped in a real-life bunker while developing Flagstaff Ranch.

The problem was that his property included what is known as Dry Lake, the caldera of an ancient volcano on top of a ridgeline. Part of the time some of this 60-acre crater becomes a wetland home to birds and animals and often a grazing area for local elk.

His early plans called for hundreds of homes along the nearby hillsides and with part of the golf course running through Dry Lake itself. Although development plans often get sympathetic reviews in Northern Arizona, the outcry about Flagstaff Ranch was enormous. A fiery environmental group known as the Friends of Dry Lake managed to persuade the county planning commission and board of supervisors to reject Mehen's development in the late '90s.

Mehen backed off at that point. He downsized his project; did a land swap with another property owner to move his houses and course away from Dry Lake; and contributed to a local fund-raising campaign so that the Grand Canyon Trust could buy 247 acres inside the crater. The saved property has become part of the Coconino National Forest, and a hiking trail will be built in the area.

"A deal has been made and the inner caldera will be undeveloped, but there will be development on all sides," says Norm Wallen one of the opponents of Flagstaff Ranch and a former member of the Flagstaff City Council. "Some of us are still not happy about it."

The uproar about Dry Lake has died down, however, and doesn't seem to be slowing sales at Flagstaff Ranch where the same manicured pine forests line jewel-like greens and fairways just as they do at the Pine Canyon Club. Five lakes are scattered throughout the course as well.

Steve Dana, an architect with the Jerry Pate design team in Florida that drew up the plans for Flagstaff Ranch, said that the firm was very conscious of the environmental impact of the golf course when they worked on it. "We were very careful to design the irrigation system to irrigate the course only and not run off into the native areas," he said. "Originally, the course went through the caldera, but as we learned more about it, the site was moved. We are now on the side of the mountain overlooking the caldera." Those holes - 10 through 13 - are some of his favorites on the par-72, 7,200-the San Francisco Peaks."

In total the development will have about 300 single-family homes, 90 townhouses and 60 condominiums. Property owners are required to join the golf club but can buy social memberships instead of the $60,000 golf memberships (with 75 percent equity). About 35 memberships out of a total of 450 will be available to non-property owners.

Custom home sites sell for from $120,000 to $750,000. So far, about half of the 210 now available have been sold.

The ranch already has opened 11 of its holes for limited play by members with the other seven set to come on line soon, says John Beck of the sales office.

Developer Jim Mehen says he has recently played the part of the course that is open and loved it. "The few people who have played it rave about it," he says. "Jerry Pate did a marvelous job in creating a traditional course with a mountain flavor."

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment