A common refrain has emerged among key stakeholders and observers when asked what Glen Abbey Golf Club's new designation as a cultural heritage site could mean for its future: "We don't know."
The town council of Oakville, Ont., voted on Monday to grant the designation to one of Canada's most famous golf courses.
But Glen Abbey owner ClubLink Corp. says it doesn't know how to operate the course without a plan from the town. The designation also puts ClubLink's redevelopment proposal for the course into uncharted territory.
Golf Canada has said it doesn't know if it can hold the Canadian Open at Glen Abbey next year as scheduled if the site requires permits for any changes needed to hold the PGA Tour event.
Developers and other golf course operators are unsure what the move could mean for properties in other municipalities. They see it as an abuse of the Ontario Heritage Act to prevent the construction of much-needed housing in the Greater Toronto Area and to circumvent the normal development application process.
The town, too, is uncertain what effects its decision will have on the redevelopment proposal – or what steps ClubLink could take in response.
The heritage designation comes into effect Thursday with the notice's publication in the Oakville Beaver. The course operator has 30 days to appeal the decision, but even if that appeal were successful, it would land back on the agenda of the same town council that unanimously approved the designation.
In the meantime, a conservation plan for the specific heritage attributes of the course will be negotiated between the town and ClubLink for the new heritage bylaw.
Looming large over those discussions will be ClubLink's redevelopment proposal for the course. ClubLink wants to build 3,222 housing units on the property, including nine apartment buildings and 122,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. Approximately 50 hectares of the property would be set aside as public green space.
The designation does not necessarily prevent redevelopment, but most likely it would see the golf course preserved.
Robert Visentin, ClubLink's senior vice-president of investments, said in a statement that the decision sets a "troublesome precedent" for the golf business.
"We believe such overreaching attributes that are intended to protect the ongoing use of the golf course may actually be used as a blunt tool by Oakville in an attempt to block our proposed real estate redevelopment," Mr. Visentin said. "We will take some time now to review our options before deciding what our next step will be."
Oakville Mayor Rob Burton said the heritage designation and ClubLink's development proposal are being treated as two separate issues by the town – despite the fact one will affect the other.
"It's not clear yet how the one could influence the other – it's too soon to say," said Mr. Burton, who acknowledged that the heritage designation doesn't mean ClubLink's development can't go ahead.
But it's clear the town wants to keep it as a golf course – as do residents who lobbied council to save the green space.
Jane Clohecy, Oakville's commissioner of community development, said "the operation of a golf course on that site is quite integral to the attributes," and the conservation plan would have to address that.
Town officials believe the designation will have no effect on Glen Abbey's normal operations and that the course can still host the Canadian Open.
The course was designed by American golf legend Jack Nicklaus in 1976 and is his first solo design. It is also the country's only stadium golf course, and no place has held the Canadian Open more often. The heritage reports commissioned by Oakville say the course's "spoke-and-wheel" design is possibly a first for modern golfing and that the spatial arrangements of the tees, fairways and holes must be protected.
Glen Abbey is the first privately owned golf course to be designated a cultural heritage site in Ontario. Two other courses – Roseland Golf and Curling Club in Windsor and Lakeview Golf Course in Mississauga – are also heritage properties, but are owned by their respective municipalities.
Jeff Calderwood, chief executive of the National Golf Course Owners Association, said in an e-mail that his organization is concerned the designation opens the door for other municipalities to do a similar thing to other courses.
"The risk to other golf course owners is that a Glen Abbey precedent could prompt other town councils to limit golf course owners' rights to re-purpose their properties for other business strategies, based upon claims of heritage designation that may be politically popular but inherently unfair to the business owner," Mr. Calderwood said.
Ontario developers are also concerned about the precedent Glen Abbey sets. Joe Vaccaro, CEO of the Ontario Home Builders' Association, said it is "inappropriate" for municipalities to use the heritage designation to circumvent the normal application process to prevent development, particularly in areas where the province is pushing for more housing.
The heritage designation may also affect the property's value. Cushman and Wakefield Inc.'s Charles Suddaby, who specializes in the valuations of hospitality real estate such as golf courses, said the inability to develop the course would "enormously" devalue the property. "The value of the land for development purposes … would be vastly superior to the value of the course as an operating business."
But Oakville residents and councillors were overwhelmingly in favour of the designation, noting the important cultural value the course has for the town, the memorable moments from the Canadian Open and the fact Oakville is synonymous with Glen Abbey. As Mr. Burton said at Monday's meeting, "If Glen Abbey isn't heritage, what is?"
There may be some clarity on the effects of the designation in the coming weeks. Oakville staff will prepare a report, and it will be considered along with the redevelopment application at a special meeting of the town council at the end of September.
With a report from Canadian Press