EASTON — The Easton Club Community Association (ECCA) has settled outside of court with property owners Maryland Health Clubs, allowing the company to manage development of a food and wellness park on its community golf course after ECCA fought to keep the golf course for more than two years through a civil lawsuit at the Talbot County Circuit Court.

The late January settlement gives Maryland Health Clubs (MHC) the ability to convert the golf course into a large food and wellness park. MHC bought the course in 2016. The Easton Club, a 342-home luxury community off Oxford Road, will now have villas, social lounges, agri-business farms and a wellness center built in homeowner’s backyards.

The terms require MHC to cut the grass, manage stormwater drainage and maintain walkable trails, giving the association some relief — maintenance of the golf course was a major concern in the community and a driving factor behind the now settled lawsuit.

Documents submitted to the town shows MHC plans to overhaul the existing 180-acre golf course, developing its park on about 45 acres of land and making the rest open space.

A rough master plan submitted to the town displays a proposal to renovate the existing clubhouse and build an “agri-event center,” numerous villas, a wellness center, dining zones, designated growing areas for farmers, social lounges and even residences for visitors.

MHC was formed by a group of physicians interested in wellness development, and the company said they are trying to replicate the success of the company Canyon Ranch.

Canyon Ranch has created popular parks with yoga and fitness centers, social lounges and other wellness amenities across the U.S., most notably in Tucson, Arizona.

“Canyon Ranch was started by a couple and they are iconic now. Who would have better expertise (to replicate that) than a group of physicians?” said Nupur Nagar, the managing member of MHC. “We’re transitioning our expertise into delivering wellness in all its aspects. ... The important aspect of what we recognize more and more in health care is mental and spiritual well-being, which is community engagement, bringing people together in social hubs.”

But the plans are meeting resistance in the community from some neighbors opposed to the new project in their backyard, citing concerns about traffic and potential impacts on their properties.

Many homeowners also bought homes in The Easton Club — which are valued at anywhere from $400,000 to $1 million — specifically for a championship golf course.

“Why can they violate the original agreement that this would always be a golf course?” asked one homeowner who lives near the proposed villas. “This is going to create a huge problem with traffic.”

Like others in this report, the homeowner spoke under the condition of anonymity because the issue is extremely divisive in the community.

Under the current plans, there will be villas built directly behind the homeowner’s house. The resident is worried because in a planned unit development (PUD) application, there is no analysis of the impact on any local homeowners.

“There’s absolutely no mention in their application that anyone lives here,” besides citing some noise concerns, the homeowner said. “It’s not just vacant land without houses.”

Under the settlement agreement, the ECCA and MHC will coordinate a “Citizens Participation Committee” consisting of an equal amount of members from both parties. The committee will examine the best approach to development to the satisfaction of both sides.

The legal settlement agreement could limit other homeowners’ ability to protest. If a resident protests in a way “that would be harmful to MHC’s interest in pursuing its development plan” the company considers that a breach of the agreement and can “terminate” homeowner’s discounts, services and other benefits from its businesses, the agreement reads.

ECCA and its president, Joe Sheehy, declined to comment on the settlement agreement.

Bruce Larson, a board member of the ECCA, commented on his personal opposition to the golf course conversion. Larson said he voted against the settlement at a board meeting — but was the only one to do so. The vote was 4-1 in favor of settling, according to Larson.

Larson said no member was excited for a food and wellness park, but the board had spent somewhere around $100,000 in court and legal fees, and were not eager to pay more.

Members had been negotiating with MHC since the case was filed in the Talbot County Circuit Court in 2018, and were more satisfied with the latest plans as opposed to earlier discussions. But Larson disagreed.

Another major concern for Larson are operational challenges with the property’s stormwater management systems, such as culverts, drainage pipes and ponds — which has affected the whole community.

“The pond was backed up twice to Oxford Road (last) year,” he said.

A home appraiser, Fitzhugh Turner, submitted written testimony to the court that stormwater maintenance was a primary cause of “property values falling” in The Easton Club, explaining that many homes have dropped selling prices by tens of thousands of dollars since 2016.

“Unfortunately, the houses in Easton Club today look upon shoddy fields,” Turner wrote in 2019. “There is no golf course, although advertised on the entrance sign.”

MHC argued in court documents that when they bought the property in 2016, the golf course had not been maintained for at least a year, already falling into disrepair. The company says they have since maintained the property.

MHC said the settlement ended a long-drawn out lawsuit that both parties had grown tired of, and the pandemic had given them the opportunity to deepen discussions. Trial dates were scheduled but had been delayed.

“The settlement agreement was very much supported by the (ECCA) board,” said Nagar. “My understanding is the community as a whole is in support of it. Are there some who might have preferred something else? Probably. But the community understands golf operation is marginal and not operational — not where the market is right now.”

Still, some residents are also upset on how much they were consulted on settlement and finalized plans. One resident said “our ability to protest” is dampened by the settlement agreement.

“By the board doing this to us, they made it impossible for us residents to oppose MHC,” the resident said. “The board went on its own and agreed to everything.”

The board is holding a meeting with homeowners on Feb. 19.

Easton Club was built in 1994 by Rocks Easton Limited Partnership (RELP). A huge selling point for the new community at the time was the 18-hole championship golf course across 180 acres of property. Golf courses were immensely popular in the ‘90s.

RELP handed the property to Easton Club Golf Course LLC. The golf course was expected to attract hundreds of golfers a day, with experts predicting that the high senior population and retiring baby boomers would flock to Easton Club for the sport.

A management firm told The Star Democrat in 2002 that the golf course was built to accommodate 40,000 rounds of golf a year, but was reported to only average about 20,000 rounds. SharCon Management said that it specializes in “distressed” properties, and they had to step in and subsidize the golf course.

That year, Easton Club Golf Course tried to build a conference center to generate more business. The public was opposed to it and it was not built.

Easton Golf Club LLC sold the property to the University of Maryland College Park Foundation in 2008, which quickly sold it to Easton Golf LLC. Easton Golf suspended operations of the failing golf course in 2015 and it went into foreclosure sale.

MHC bought it at a foreclosure auction for $1.2 million.

ECCA filed its lawsuit the next year in a bid to force the company to maintain the land properly and to “restrain Maryland Health Club LLC from using the property in any other way” than a golf course, court documents say.

But in the final settlement, “both parties agree that MHC will not be using the property as a golf course. However, in the event it becomes economically feasible and profitable in the future, MHC retains the right to renovate all or part of the property as a golf course.”

MHC points to the challenges facing golf courses across the country in its PUD application. The company cites data showing about 15 private golf courses that have closed in recent years across the country, and reporting the number of golfers has decreased 2% every year.

For comparison, they say the wellness industry overall is worth $4.3 trillion and growing 6.4% annually.

“Our vision is to transform the property into a food and wellness destination, an upscale hub attracting visitors from surrounding areas of (Washington) D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and Delaware,” they wrote in the application. “The farm to table food experience shall be offered on a platform of hospitality and shall be promoted as a destination point.”

MHC has not developed any projects before, but Nagar has been working to convert golf courses into wellness parks for years.

Nagar also owns Health & Wellness Lifestyle Clubs, which attempted to purchase two private golf courses in Ohio in 2015 for conversion into a wellness club.

Nagar said she has invested “millions” of dollars into the Easton project so far and is committed to it. The managing member said they are far along in the design and development process but did not have a timetable to give.

A lawyer representing Nagar, Benjamin Wechsler, said the public has the right to be concerned but should trust “the thought and seriousness to which Maryland Health Clubs is approaching this project” and that Nagar and other physicians are accomplished.

“Specifically, a select few believes that Maryland Health Club does not have the expertise and background to develop a project such as what is being proposed,” he wrote in an email. “While my client appreciates those concerns, and has tried very hard to address them, the reality is that no amount of assurances can quell every community member’s concerns.”

Joe Mayer, the town plan reviewer, said MHC has submitted the proper PUD plan asking for an amendment to change the land use, which would require a vote in the planning commission. Planning officials are still reviewing documents and designs, and MHC has not yet submitted a site plan.

“We’re waiting for a full-blown site plan,” Mayer said, calling the documents so far “small, schematic plans.” He has been waiting two or three weeks for the full submittal. “Once that comes into our hands, we can start that process — but we are going to need all that other information that is associated with the site plan.”

The project will be built in phases, with the first phase consisting of a renovation of the clubhouse. Developers will construct an agri-event center in phase two and the villas and wellness center in phase three. They will also build what they call “agri-building farms.”

A handful of homeowners interviewed for this article, while not representative of the opinions of everyone in the community, did not like the idea of farms, villas and a wellness center in their backyards, but acknowledged golf courses are no longer the attraction they once were.

“My personal thought — project open space,” said one resident. “A little nature preserve.”

Larson said he and many others in the community bought a home in The Easton Club because of its sprawling, green golf course.

“On the Eastern Shore, you come to live on the water — but you can’t because it costs a million dollars — so you want a golf course,” he said. “ I have a friend down the street, he doesn’t golf but he loves the vistas.”

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