Sunday, July 30, 2006

Golf Club's closing hits close to home

Course faces uncertain future after Monday

By Seth Soffian
Originally posted on July 30, 2006

Barbara Ogle knows exactly how the people who live next to The Golf Club in Cape Coral feel.

A mortgage broker who lives along Bonita Springs Golf and Country Club, Ogle has headed an informal committee that for the past year has tried — with limited success — to keep homes from being built on part of the course.

"When we bought this home, this neighborhood was marketed as (having an) 18-hole professional golf course," Ogle said. "And the people that bought lots on the golf course paid a premium to be on the golf course."

With the course, which closed June 2, sitting in limbo for at least a year now, Ogle said property values have been affected. Some owners along the course have lowered asking prices for their homes by nearly $100,000, Ogle said, while other homes have sat on the market for nearly a year.

"Some of it is market adjustment," Ogle said of the flattening real estate market. "And some of it is because of the uncertainty of what's going to be outside of your backdoor."

That same uncertainty threatens not only residents next to The Golf Club — which will close Monday for what owners say is due to repeated financial losses — but potentially thousands of other homeowners throughout Southwest Florida.

As with the Bonita Springs and Cape Coral courses, Riviera Golf Club in Naples also closed this year and faces potential development.

All three courses represent what experts say could be a growing trend — that is, going from fairways and greens to foundations and wallboard.

According to the Jupiter-based National Golf Foundation, more golf courses closed nationwide in the first half of this year than opened.

There were 65 closures and 57.5 openings — measured in 18-hole equivalents — according to the foundation's Mid-Year Golf Course Development Update. The report predicts similar year-end results.

Florida, which has more golf courses than any other state, is contributing to the trend. In the first half of the year, nine golf courses closed statewide while eight and a half 18-hole equivalents opened.

"It's a real hard time right now," said Dave Smith, owner of S&S Golf Management in Fort Myers, which oversees about 10 golf course communities in Southwest Florida.

Increased costs for labor, fuel, fertilizer, insurance and other items have made golf less profitable while land becomes more valuable.

Rampant course construction in the past decade combined with stagnant numbers playing the game also has contributed to a glut of courses.

"Rounds of golf (nationwide) in 2005 were less than they were in 2000," said Joey Garon, vice president of operations for The Bonita Bay Group, developer of five gated golf course communities in Lee and Collier counties.

"What's amazing about that? In that time, you've had well over 1,000 golf courses built. You have less people buying groceries and you have 1,000 new Albertson's. Something's got to give."

Dennis Hillier, an attorney with more than 30 years' experience designing club membership programs for developers, said the trend is known as "decommissioning of golf courses."

"If they don't work financially, then the owners (have) got to look at other options," said Hillier, who is based in Boca Raton with Greenberg Traurig. "We think this will accelerate over the next 10 years as the market deals with the oversupply of golf courses."

The greatest immediate threat appears to be to courses with similar characteristics to The Golf Club, Bonita Springs Golf & Country Club and Riviera Golf Club.

All are relatively old for this area — built in the 1960s and '70s — and are owned by individuals or private owners independent from the homeowners around the courses.

Matt Noble, with the Lee County planning department, estimated more than a dozen golf courses in Lee County fit that description.

"That risk is there on some of these courses for the people around them that have no interest (ownership) in the land," Noble said.

Zoning changes would be required before most courses could be converted into residential developments, but that's not an impassible hurdle, Noble said.

"You have to be found to be compatible with the surrounding land uses, and your impacts have to be addressed," Noble said. "It's something that would have to be viewed on a case-by-case basis, but more residential (zoning) in a residential environment, those are typically compatible uses."

Courses in newer communities may be better protected in deeds and other documents from future conversions. But they aren't necessarily guaranteed to remain golf courses in perpetuity.

"There never is any protection, to my knowledge, that says this must be maintained as a golf course to eternity," said Bonita Bay's Garon, who has worked in golf and club management for 24 years.

"Nobody ever plans, 'Fifteen years down the road, this might be the case,' " Garon said. "(But) you never know down the road. Land might become so valuable it would happen."

As with the possible developments at The Golf Club, Bonita Springs Golf & Country Club and Riviera Golf Club, that could lead to more community protest and threatened legal action.

"Every case is different," Hillier said. "The only way they're really going to win is there's something in the chain of title (telling) you there's going to be a golf course there in perpetuity."

Residents along Bonita Springs Golf & Country Club already have learned that the hard way.

"Pretty soon there won't be any open space left in Florida," Ogle said. "It will all be homes and condos that are left on the market and reduced in price. There has to be some quality of life that is left here, and it cannot be all gated community."