The Bath City Council on Wednesday denied a citizens’ request to change a zoning law to stop The Bath Golf Club’s plan to reduce the course from 18 holes to nine and build housing.

A view of The Bath Golf Club, which was established in 1932. Courtesy of The Bath Golf Club

A total of 777 people signed a petition to ban housing at the golf club, which the owner said is necessary to return the club to profitability. The council rejected the request in a 9-0 vote, with members expressing concern about government overreach since the club is private property. They also said they wanted more voters to weigh in on the matter. The petition will now be subject to a voter referendum on June 11 since at least 10% of voters in the last municipal election signed it, which is the required threshold for a city-wide vote.

“If we accept this petition, then we’re sending a message that a petition is the appropriate way to control what your neighbor is doing on their property,” Councilor Miriam Johnson said. “That’s a very dangerous precedent for this council to be setting.

“I can’t endorse that and I don’t want to send a message that’s this is how we do business in Bath.”

Golf club members who live near the course started the petition effort and founded The Links At Merrymeeting Bay, a nonprofit with 140 paying members who are exploring possibly purchasing the club, according to its president, Alicia Romac.

The golf course, located in the city’s rural northern tip, is in its own zoning district that city code says “will protect the golf course from incompatible neighboring land uses and protect the surrounding Low-density Residential District from encroachment by incompatible uses at the golf course.” The city’s 2023 Comprehensive Plan, a guiding document, says development in rural areas is “generally” discouraged to “preserve rural landscape, scenic views, and natural resources.” However, densely packed housing is allowed in the district and the Comprehensive Plan identifies housing as a priority.

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“To pass this petition says that Bath would rather have the golf course fail than to go to nine holes and provide much-needed housing,” said Sam Hamilton, the club’s legal counsel.

The petition would change the club’s zoning law, banning multifamily housing and cluster subdivisions from being built there.

“The purpose is to correct inconsistencies between the land use code and the Comprehensive Plan as well as to preserve the golf course,” Romac said.

Councilor Chris Marks said all the city’s voters should get the chance to have the final say.

“One hundred and forty or so members of Merrymeeting Links and the dozens or people who we’ve heard support this don’t add up to quite enough for me,” he said. “We need to hear from the entire electorate.”

The club is owned by Resurrection Golf, which also owns Old Marsh Country Club in Wells and Penobscot Valley Country Club in Orono. The Bath Golf Club was built in 1932 as a nine-hole course, and managing member Sean McCarthy said it hasn’t been profitable since it expanded to 18 holes in 1994.

The club proposed building up to 70 townhouses on the 120-acre property, but the council in October blocked the project, citing opposition from club members and neighbors. It forced the club to consider other options, such as building affordable housing.

McCarthy told the council the club is not for sale and said the group behind the petition is trying to impose its will on private land.

“If you strive to ‘save the golf course’ as an 18-hole golf course, and it is not for sale and the owner doesn’t wish to continue, when you don’t permit another use, what is the alternative?” he said.

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