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Green for Profit

How the Profit Motive Transformed a Landfill

OCTOBER 01, 2003 by SCOTT MCPHERSON

Have you ever heard the expression “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”? What about one man’s trash being another man’s golf course? That notion is actually becoming a reality, and it proves once again the value of private initiative and the wisdom of entrepreneurialism over government control.

In the sunny suburban landscape of Sandy Springs, Georgia, a private developer has turned a former dump into a recreational area, providing local residents with an 18-hole, executive-length golf course. As the Washington Times saw it, “The stinky Morgan Falls landfill was a constant source of complaints from people who lived nearby and from environmental regulators concerned about pollution in the nearby Chattahoochee River. Now, golfers are admiring the ridges and valleys next to the river.” (Ty Tagami, “Converted Landfill Par for the Course,” December 31, 2002. Subsequent quotes are also from this source.)

Seeing a potential opportunity, Kay Broaddus, a Coca-Cola marketing executive who is now president of Eagle Golf Ventures, had researched demand for sports facilities in the area and concluded that many residents wanted access to a green. The trouble was that increased residential development had taken up all the choicest spots. Rather than abandon an obvious money-making scheme, however, Ms. Broaddus set her sights on a piece of ground that was already occupied, but not exactly being put to its most gainful use.

What Broaddus was eyeing was the Morgan Falls landfill, full since 1988, and, to the concern of state officials, a major cause of erosion and runoff because of poor county maintenance. Worse, this eyesore was costing Fulton County taxpayers $250,000 a year to maintain. By comparison, Eagle Golf Ventures could develop the landfill, remove a blot on the scenery, relieve the county of a needless expense, provide local citizens with golfing facilities, and turn an otherwise useless piece of real estate into a profitable enterprise.

Fortunately, the proposition was approved, and Eagle Golf Ventures spent $5 million to construct Blue Heron Golf Club, after the county spent $1 million on a methane-extraction system to ready the landfill for development. Ideally, that cost too would have been borne by Eagle, but that imperfection in the formula is arguably outweighed by one particular benefit: an end to maintenance costs alone will see the county reimbursed in just four years.

Philosophically speaking, the only thing that really soils the deal is that Eagle does not get deed to the property—it is paying rent to the county to the tune of $40,000 a year and, eventually, a percentage of its greens fees, as well. This regime should clearly be replaced by one passing full ownership to the company. But absent that possibility, it’s still a pretty good bargain for everyone. “I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful addition to the community,” one enthusiastic householder said of the new club.

Next Big Trend

And it doesn’t end in Sandy Springs. According to Bill Love, environmental committee chairman for the American Society of Golf Course Architects, there are at least 50 other landfills in the country that have been converted into golf courses. The Times report credits Love with predicting “the next big national trend” as “designing landfills for use after closing.” Perhaps it would be wisest to cut out the government middleman and just ask private groups like Love’s to take over nationwide waste disposal.

Which raises another interesting point. Considering government’s repeated inability to adapt and innovate to changing circumstances, could county or state agencies ever be counted on to have the kind of foresight necessary to bring these kinds of projects to fruition? In the Sandy Springs case alone, 14 years and several million dollars went down the drain without any such inspiration. They can’t exactly say they were getting around to it, can they? And as Ideas on Liberty readers know, bureaucrats and politicians are often enough more than hostile to such community improvements. (See “My Regulatory Nightmare” by Stephen Lathrop, Ideas on Liberty, March 2003).

Without the profit motive, a full landfill is as useless as the junk, rodents, filth, pollution, and stench that reside there. Government officials, at whatever level, stand to gain nothing for proposing such a plan. For government, $250,000 a year to maintain a defunct investment is simply a fixed cost. On the other hand, all it takes is an entrepreneur with a little motivation to show that one man’s trash can truly become another man’s treasure, making the world a little bit greener for everyone.

Scott McPherson is a policy adviser at the Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) in Fairfax, Virginia.


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October 2003

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