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Amherst golfers oppose plan to convert Audubon course into cemetery

As far as the golfers of the Audubon Men’s Club are concerned, it’s as if the Town of Amherst fired a tee shot right into their group, without even the courtesy of yelling, “Fore!”

The club, which includes about 100 members, was surprised at the town's recent announcement to convert more than half of the Audubon Golf Course into a cemetery, partly because town officials say part of the course sits on a burial ground. The club questions those claims, as well as the town's proposed plans to work with Forest Lawn to establish a park-like "memory garden."

"It was surprising to all of a sudden to see, 'We're thinking about closing the golf course.' What?" said Dave Borchard, treasurer of the Audubon Men's Club, which was established in 1933. "We want the members of the town board to know that there's clearly going to be some grassroots opposition to this kind of a project."

Monday night marks the first Amherst Town Board meeting since the town announced its plans for Audubon, which is on Maple Road near the University at Buffalo North Campus.

Borchard said his club is one of 14 groups that regularly use the golf course, several of which are expected to be represented at the 7 p.m. meeting at the Amherst Municipal Building, 5583 Main St.

"It sounds like a precipitous decision to think about closing the golf course to give away 30 acres to Forest Lawn," Borchard said. "I'm going to, on behalf of the board, state our opposition to this whole notion of giving away the acreage and closing the golf course because it's used by a lot of people in town."

On Feb. 10, Amherst Supervisor Brian Kulpa announced plans to incorporate what officials say are burial sites near the 18th tee and 14th green into a proposed Amherst "memory garden" that would cover the eastern section of the golf course.

The proposal followed recent revelations about the burial sites, which officials say include remains that were relocated in the 1960s to Audubon from the University at Buffalo's South Campus, where the Erie County Poorhouse operated for the latter half of the 19th century.

"We should not be playing golf over top of bodies," Kulpa said. "Personally, I don't see how it's fit to operate something that involves you working with the land, when you know that there's basically mass burial underneath it."

Kulpa also has said that the golf course, which has a history of financial struggles, may operate as an 18-hole course for just one more season.

"The bottom line is that the course has struggled anyway," said Kulpa, who said that a committee, which will include the groups who play at Audubon, will be formed to discuss "what the future of golf should be in Amherst. ... We'll figure that out. We have a year to figure that out."

A UB research project in 2012 determined that hundreds of human remains from the Main Street Campus were relocated in 1964 to Audubon, which was briefly owned by UB. The study said that bone fragments and other materials were reburied in an area near the 18th tee boxes that extends toward the fairway, which runs parallel to Maple Road; and at another site north of the 14th green and north of the Ellicott Creek Trailway off North Forest Road.

The university determined that James Eisenmann, a retired UB public safety officer and former member of the university's grounds crew, witnessed the reburial of remains. In July 2012, Eisenmann pointed out the two likely reburial sites "with a high degree of confidence," according to a confidential fact sheet prepared for a 2013 joint UB-Forest Lawn meeting on the issue.

"That seems to be pretty sketchy information on which to say, 'Oh, I guess we better close the golf course," said Borchard. "It's based on a 50-year-old recollection."

Borchard said that Value Golf LLC, which operates Audubon, told the men's club at their most recent board meeting that 16,000 rounds were played at Audubon last year, which was an off year due to wet weather to start the season. Borchard said typically 20,000 rounds are played per year.

"We can put up a very tasteful memorial in two places that would be respectful and tasteful and not disrupt the course," he said, saying the situation is not unlike the one at Delaware Park's golf course, where a small plaque at the fourth hole marks a mass grave of 300 soldiers who died in the War of 1812.

Borchard also said that the site near the 14th green, because it is north of the Ellicott Trailway, would put it beyond the course layout. "As far as I can tell," he said, "it's not even on the golf course."

The proposed memorial park is envisioned as a modern cemetery for cremated remains only – no traditional burials – with botanical-garden landscaping, winding paths and technology which would have visitors locate burial sites via GPS.

At the Feb. 10 press conference, the town unveiled renderings of a parklike cemetery and a proposed redrawn map of the current Audubon Golf Course that leaves only three golf holes on the perimeter of what would be a golf center/driving range.

Kulpa stood by the UB fact sheet. "Let's just work with the assumption that there are people who would not have written that letter and put it on file at SUNY construction if they didn't really do it.

"And then we can go from there we can have an honest conversation about what people want. Are they that madly in love with Audubon? Or do they really just want you know, town-discounted golf? Those are two different questions.

"So, if there is this burning fondness for Audubon, then how many people really have that burning fondness for Audubon in the community? We have a lot more to ask. How many people are in these groups?"

Beneath Amherst's Audubon Golf Course, a long-forgotten mass grave

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