Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Citizens pressure council to act on golf club


An emotionally charged crowd of Cape residents who have witnessed the rapid deterioration of The Golf Club since its Aug. 1 closure packed council chambers at City Hall demanding answers Monday evening.

While council rendered no immediate solutions to the apparent gridlock between the city and the owners of the defunct 18-hole course, city officials took a step forward by deciding to investigate a number of scenarios for future development and also appraise the property to negotiate a purchasing price with the current owners.

Nearly all the residents who attended the council meeting said they wanted to save the 18-hole golf course.

“I want to see the course stay,” said George Nixon, whose home abuts the 9th hole. “I like playing golf and I think that property has a lot of potential ... what city has a golf course downtown?”

Councilmember Tom Hair, who was appointed to the District 1 seat on Sept. 25 following the death of Councilmember Jim Jeffers, included the city’s controversial 45-year-old golf course on the agenda and proposed a contingency plan to save the property.

“I’m brand new at this and I didn’t mean for it to become a public firestorm,” Hair told the crowd. “I just want to throw out some ideas and see what sticks to the wall.”

Hair presented the following options for The Golf Club:

- The city purchases the 178-acre property outright, which could be extremely expensive but would allow the citizens to decide the future of the course.

- Sell city owned surplus land in less desirable locations and use the funds to purchase the property, which could result in the loss of future park areas.

- Change current land use ordinances on a small portion of the property to allow the development of hotels, condominiums and commercials space; this would entice developers who could sell the golf course to the city at a reduced price.

The Golf Club was forced to shut its doors after losing $3 million in five years.

Of the 400 properties that abut the course, less than 25 homeowners were members of The Golf Club, according to managing partner Scott Siler.

A limited liability partnership between The Gulf Club of Southwest LLC and Ryan LLC in early August formed Florida Gulf Ventures LLC. The joint venture recapitalized and remortgaged the club’s debt.

That debt could now be around $25 million, said city financial director Mark Mason.

Councilmember Tim Day added to Hair’s proposal that the city appease the property owners by assuming the debt while looking for potential developers.

“It’s not going to do anyone any good to let this thing go to total disrepair,” said Day. “This would only be a temporary solution.”

In June 2005, the Lee County School District attempted to buy the property for the building site of five new schools, but public outcry forced the district to withdrawal their $26.1 million offer.

District 4 Councilmember Dolores Bertolini, whose district includes The Golf Club, said she attempted negotiations with Siler and the other owners in the past but could not reach a reasonable solution.

“Two years ago they were asking $18 million,” she said, “then they wanted $23 million for the schools and now it seems like they’re asking upwards of $30 million.”

Siler could not be reached for comment late Monday.

Mayor Eric Feichthaler wanted to secure the property immediately and said the city could consider purchasing The Golf Club for no more than $15 million.

“There’s no promise this would become a golf course, though that’s my intent, but at least we’d have control,” Feichthaler said.

Mason said the city could borrow the necessary funds, but council quickly decided against naming a price before speaking with Siler and an appraisal of the property was completed.

“I’m not willing to pull Siler’s feet out of the fire,” said Councilwoman Alex LaPera, adding that developing at least a portion of the property would be the only way to save the course and keep the city from sinking into the quagmire of debt already associated with the property.

Hair countered that no other public recreation facilities are required to turn a profit, adding that the city could sell off surplus properties and use the proceeds to retain The Golf Club.

“Parks and recreation is not a profit center,” said Hair, “and we have other properties sitting in the city that we could use to snatch a better piece.”

Council voted 6-1 to investigate the options presented by Hair and Day.

Bertolini voted against the motion.

As city officials take a step towards breathing new life into The Golf Club, its return to an uninhibited wilderness is ongoing.

Siler has been cited numerous times for violating city ordinance, according to officials.

That Siler has apparently let the course become an overgrown eyesore was not surprising to Bertolini, who said she suspects it may be a business tactic.

“He (Siler) is sitting back and waiting until it deteriorates to a point where we’re doing what we did tonight,” she said. “I think it’s all a big real estate tactic.”

Nearby homeowners say the course has become a brush fire waiting to happen and a breeding ground for rats and snakes.

“We’re going to have people walking around out there and getting bitten by a snake,” Hair said earlier this week. “You’ve got this big empty piece of land waiting for something bad to happen to it.”

According to those who own property near The Golf Club, bad things have already begun to happen.

Michelle Sour, of 702 Wildwood Place, said her home has depreciated by $100,000 and that a potential buyer backed out of the deal since the course closed.

“We can’t even give that home away,” she said. “You just can’t do that to people.”