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Converting a closed landfill into a golf course can provide an effective redevelopment alternative

Richard Coates, Assistant Director, and Anthony Spencer, Solid Waste Manager, Fulton County Department of Public Works, Atlanta, Georgia
Presenters, 2004 APWA Congress

If you're visiting Atlanta, how about playing 18 holes of golf at the Blue Heron Golf Course? This golf course looks and plays the same as any other of the numerous golf courses located in metropolitan Atlanta, with one major exception. The Blue Heron Golf Course is located on top of the closed Morgan Falls Landfill. The course has been open to the public since mid-2003.

The Morgan Falls Landfill is owned and was once operated by Fulton County, Georgia. Although much of the history of the site is imprecise or unavailable, the Morgan Falls Landfill began operations in the mid-1950s as an open dump and nonpermitted landfill. The site was permitted as a municipal solid waste landfill in 1975 and ceased operation sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s. The landfill closure (engineered cap of compacted soil and vegetative cover) was performed in 1997, and approved by the state regulatory agency in 1998. The landfill site comprises approximately 128.54 acres, which include the 68.51-acre closed waste management area. The site is now in a six-year post-closure care program. Activities continuing under the post-closure care program include a recycling facility, a golf driving range, an 18-hole executive golf course, a groundwater monitoring system, a methane monitoring system, and a landfill gas collection and control system.

The Blue Heron Golf Course was developed through a partnership with Fulton County and Eagle Golf Ventures, Inc., the private developer responsible for raising the financing for construction and assuming the capital risk. Although Fulton County has retained ownership of the site, the use of the property was transferred to the private developer through a long-term lease agreement. Fulton County retains responsibility and liability for continuing environmental compliance and post-closure care. Fulton County receives lease payments and a percentage of the revenue based on the profitability of the golf course.

Notwithstanding the regulatory, technical and other challenges associated with developing a closed landfill, the Morgan Falls Landfill site was an ideal candidate for locating a golf course for the following reasons:

  • The site is located in a large developed urban population center with a growing demand for golf and other recreational uses, with very few suitably-sized parcels of land available for any type of development.

  • The landfill site is low in value compared to the surrounding land values. Alternative sites or available parcels within the community are cost prohibitive or economically infeasible.

  • The site is a large source of natural water for irrigation and golf course use, and does not require the purchase of water for irrigation.

  • The landfill closure plan has been effective in controlling methane gas, leachate, settling, and drainage issues making the site suitable for recreational uses.

  • The site is adjacent to a recreational facility and green space with existing passive and active uses. A portion of the landfill site had been used as a driving range for almost five years before construction of the golf course.

Although successful, this project has presented a significant number of challenging design and other technical issues by having to balance the features inherent in building and operating a golf facility while maintaining compliance with local and state environmental regulations. However, the primary obstacle to implementing the project was to gain the approval and acceptance of Fulton County's elected officials and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Protection Division, the state agency responsible for regulating landfills.

  The Blue Heron Golf Course under construction

The golf course layout and overall design was a significant challenge due to limitation of cutting, filling, excavations and placement of the golf course play features. Over one million cubic yards of buried refuse exist under the golf course. The recontoured mounds of waste became a visual asset, although they imposed a major engineering challenge. The landfill gas system, monitoring wells, extraction wells, and other post-closure structures were already installed and operational long before the design and construction of the golf course. The most challenging environmental design feature involves recovery of methane gas, and working around the sixty methane extraction wells installed throughout the waste mass. The extraction system was designed to transport the estimated 180 million cubic feet of methane which is generated annually. This situation required a significant amount of thoughtful design and layout of the golf course to situate the fairways, greens, and tees to avoid critical structures, while allowing access for future operation and maintenance activities without disruption of play on the golf course. It was evident that the design and planning of the landfill gas system and golf course needed to occur concurrently if possible.

The challenges associated with operating the Blue Heron Golf Course on a landfill under active regulatory closure did not end with the completion of the construction phase of the project. Routine and emergency access to the landfill gas collection system and well field is and will continue to be necessary to properly check and periodically adjust system performance, make repairs to broken or blocked landfill gas collection piping and control systems, or to implement best management practices to maintain the integrity of the landfill cap.

Landfill sites have historically been left undisturbed as closed, or otherwise unusable, properties by isolating or other risk minimization techniques. While other communities struggle with the use and loss of land to solid waste landfills, Fulton County has transformed one closed landfill site into a valuable and beautiful recreation area. The former Morgan Falls Landfill site is a success story of how an undesirable landfill site can be transformed into a viable secondary land use such as a golf course.

Given the choice between building a golf course on virgin land or a landfill, clearly the choice would be to construct somewhere other than on a landfill. However, if one of the primary goals is to find an alternative use for an old landfill, and the construction and operation of a golf course are economically feasible, then a project such as the Blue Heron Golf Course is highly recommended. This successful project establishes alternative uses for brownfields and other environmentally-challenged properties. Secondly, it underscores the creative application of engineering principles in the areas of design and construction.

The Blue Heron Golf Course is now central to a redevelopment that boasts a cluster of new $400,000 to $600,000 homes, condominiums in the $160,000 to $250,000 range, luxury apartments, and approximately 100 additional acres of active and passive parks and green space. In addition to the economic benefits, the Morgan Falls Landfill site, once viewed as a negative in the community, has put land into use that would otherwise have been an unused brownfield.

The authors will present an educational session at the APWA Congress in Atlanta entitled "A Hole-in-One for the Morgan Falls Landfill!" The presentation, which takes place on Monday, September 13, at 11:00 a.m., will provide detailed background information about the landfill golf course development, landfill post-closure issues, and the challenges and success of the project. Richard Coates can be reached at (404) 730-7421 or at Richard.Coates@co.fulton.ga.us; Anthony Spencer can be reached at (404) 730-8013 or at Anthony.Spencer@co.fulton.ga.us.

  An aerial view of the Blue Heron Golf Course under construction