A Pennsylvania businessman wants to build two public 18-hole golf courses designed by noted architect Pete Dye on land near Havre de Grace that was touted as the site for a motor sports raceway earlier this year.
Harford County officials are backing plans presented by E. B. Abel of Mountville, Pa., who has an option to purchase the 550-acre Blenheim Farm about 1 1/2 miles west of Havre de Grace.
If all goes as planned, Mr. Abel said, he would open one of the courses by 1997.
"It's the greatest property I've ever seen, and I've been looking for two years," said Mr. Abel, who took up golf four years ago after selling his two construction contracting businesses in York County, Pa.
"This will be a championship course, a place where we expect the pros to play, where we hope to eventually get a PGA tournament," he said.
Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann sees a chance to draw tourists. "The real value here is the economic infrastructure we're building by having a world-class golf course. People will come long distances to play golf on a Pete Dye course, and once you get them here, then you have the potential to generate other business."
She said the golf courses would also provide an essential greenway along the U.S. 40 corridor. "We could have had 1,000 units of residential development on that land. But now we'll have a buffer between Aberdeen and Havre de Grace."
Mr. Dye, who has designed golf courses across the country, said the size of the Blenheim property and its natural setting appealed to him. "There are lots of woods and streams we'll leave untouched," he said. "You can almost see the bay. It's got a lot of good qualities."
Among Mr. Dye's most famous designs is the Sawgrass course at the Tournament Players Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., where the 17th green is on an island. That course is home to PGA Tour headquarters and the site of the annual Tournament Players Championship.
He said the Blenheim Farm course would attract people from the East Coast who want to play challenging golf.
It also will appeal to golf associations, he said, which are increasingly looking to hold tournaments at public rather than private courses in an effort to promote the game of golf.
"We're very pleased with the idea," said Edna Osborn, who owns the Blenheim property with her son and daughter. It has been in the family of her late husband, Charles B. Osborn 3rd, for more than 100 years.
She said the proposal will improve the Havre de Grace-Aberdeen area and "won't bother any neighbors."
She would not say what the price of the land is, though Mr. Abel said he is expecting to spend up to $30 million on the project.
Residents of the area surrounding the farm protested vehemently last year when the Osborns were expected to sell the property to Lutherville developer D. Richard Rothman for his motor raceway. Residents feared the traffic and noise on race days would be too disruptive.
Mr. Rothman withdrew his option on the property in May after Mrs. Rehrmann and Havre de Grace Mayor Gunther D. Hirsch came out against his plan.
Residents seemed far more accepting of the golf course after preliminary plans were presented last week at a meeting of the Aberdeen-Havre de Grace Community Planning Council.
"It sure seems like they have answered all our concerns, and we are cautiously hopeful it will go through," said Ruth Hendricksen, who spearheaded Citizens Against the Racetrack.
Preliminary plans call for the two golf courses, a clubhouse and practice area. A mansion on the property will be converted to a bed and breakfast, said Bob Hockaday, Harford County director of governmental and community relations.
Mr. Hockaday said key players in the plan -- including state and county officials, Mr. Dye and engineers from Morris & Ritchie Associates Inc., a Harford County firm hired by Mr. Abel to coordinate the project -- have been working on a feasibility study for about two months. The next step, Mr. Hockaday said, will be to get zoning approval.
Construction of the first course, a clubhouse and the mansion renovation could begin early next year, said Tom O'Laughlin, vice president for Morris & Ritchie. Play could begin by spring or summer 1997, he said, with greens fees likely running about $100.
The Blenheim property, which stretches north from Route 40 to Chapel Road, involves four zoning categories -- commercial, industrial, residential and agricultural.
The owners will have to appeal to the county Zoning Board of Appeals for special exception standing in order to allow a golf course to be built on the property. The appeal would ultimately involve a public hearing on the proposal.
Entrance to the property would be off U.S. 40 and would not affect traffic on Chapel Road, a consideration that had been of concern to residents when the racetrack proposal for the property was in the offing last spring, Mr. O'Laughlin said.
The land would remain heavily wooded, said Mr. Abel, who until four years ago ran contracting firms in York County that built schools, hospitals and bridges. "Then I got burned out," he said, and took up golf.
Since then, he's played on some of the most challenging golf courses on the East Coast, "by invitation only," he said.
Now, he wants to build a course of equal caliber for public use, he said.