Cherry Hill's Woodcrest Country Club was auctioned off Monday to a Marlton real estate group that bid $10.1 million for the historic golf course - nearly $4 million more than its appraised value, according to Camden County officials.
Cherry Hill Land Associates, a subsidiary of First Montgomery Group, outbid the county and the Union League of Philadelphia, and narrowly defeated George E. Norcross III and Ira Lubert, who bid $10 million during a closed-door bankruptcy auction at the Blank Rome law firm in Philadelphia.
First Montgomery has apartment holdings in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, as well as several shopping centers. Its principals are Richard Haydinger Jr. and his sons Richard III, Michael, and Matthew.
The group has not revealed its plans for the property to county and township officials. Calls to the group went unreturned Monday.
Last week, Matthew Haydinger said, "We are aware it's an area and a piece of land that impacts a lot of people, and we are absolutely taking that into consideration."
The group's bid for the course - a rare swath of green space in heavily developed Cherry Hill - drew sharp criticism from rivals who want the property to retain its parklike setting.
"I am disappointed and outraged," county Freeholder Jeff Nash said after the auction.
The county bid $7.2 million on the property, with a stated aim of preserving it as a golf course or park.
A recent appraisal commissioned by the county valued the property at $6.5 million, county officials said. It was assessed this year at $5.4 million, according to tax records.
"I find it difficult to believe that a real estate group would bid more than $4 million above the appraised value for a historic parcel that would be extremely difficult to develop in an environmentally sensitive area that requires federal, state, county, and municipal approvals," Nash said.
Founded in 1929, Woodcrest became a haven for the area's Jewish elite, who at the time were unable to gain entry to other country clubs. The club filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year and did not open this season.
The property, which includes wetlands, is zoned for institutional uses, such as a hospital or school.
Cherry Hill officials, including Mayor Chuck Cahn, have voiced strong opposition to any zoning change. In the weeks leading up to the auction, they called for the course to stay open space, seeking the county's assistance in a bid for the club.
While they did not win at auction, "our position has not changed: Council and I do not want to see this site developed, and we will not support any change in zoning," Cahn said.
At a neighborhood meeting last month, Cahn told residents who live near the golf course that he had met with representatives of First Montgomery and "they did say they would be willing to keep it a golf course a number of years."
The group also said it would not seek a zoning change, Cahn told Woodcrest neighbors.
Township officials have not learned anything more about the group's plans, spokeswoman Bridget Palmer said Monday.
"We've made our expectations clear," she said. "And we will continue to advocate for that preservation."
In recent days, Norcross, the insurance executive and South Jersey Democratic power broker, joined the call for the course to remain open space.
On Saturday, he announced plans to bid on the club with Lubert, chairman of private-equity firms Independence Capital Partners and Lubert-Adler Partners L.P. The pair said they wanted to reopen the club and run it as a golf course.
"We are disappointed that our $10 million bid was not enough to win the auction and ensure the restoration and preservation of this nearly century-old community landmark," Norcross said.
Norcross is comanaging partner and director of Interstate General Media, owner of The Inquirer. He also chairs the board of the Cooper Health System and Cooper University Hospital.
The Norcross group drove up the bidding Monday, according to a source familiar with the auction, who said the Union League dropped out after bidding $7.8 million.
Messages left with the league and its attorney - who also had expressed interest in operating the club as a golf course - were not returned Monday.
First Montgomery entered an agreement with bankruptcy trustee Bonnie Glantz Fatell in March to buy the Woodcrest property for $6.25 million, setting the minimum bid for the auction.
Fatell said the bidding at the auction - which she described as "lively and robust" - "reflects the tremendous interest in the property."
"I am pleased that we were able to maximize the value of the country club," she said.
A hearing to approve the sale will take place in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Camden at 1 p.m. Friday, when the court is also expected to approve Fatell's plan of reorganization for the club, she said.
The club ran into financial trouble several years ago after it was unable to repay an $8 million loan for a new clubhouse issued by Sun Bank, which has a lien on the property.
The bank - owed more than $11 million, according to court filings - has agreed to carve enough money out of the sale proceeds to pay administrative and priority claims, and $100,000 to pay unsecured creditors, Fatell said. She expects the sale will close as early as next week.