Thursday, September 18, 2008

Cape Coral agency wants to preserve The Golf Club land

By Brian Liberatore • • September 18, 2008

The Golf Club, defunct now for two years, might find a way forward on the back of the Cape Coral Community Development Agency.

The CRA is looking to reach outside its boundaries and purchase the 175-acre property to preserve it as a golf course or city park.

The move would require support from the City Council, Florida Gulf Venture, LLC which owns the course, and nearby homeowners.

Councilwoman Dolores Bertolini, who represents the district, is orchestrating the first meeting of the project's stakeholders from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 7, in the City Council Chambers at City Hall. The meeting is open to the public.

"I want them (residents) to know exactly what's happening with the land they live around," Bertolini said.

John Jacobsen, executive director of the CRA, agrees.

"I don't want anybody who lives near that golf course to be afraid or be concerned," Jacobsen said. "This is going to be totally in the open, totally in the sunshine."

The course has been a beacon of contention in the surrounding neighborhood since it closed in July 2006. Florida Gulf Venture blamed economic hardship in shutting down the city's oldest course.

The owners floated a series of proposals to turn the course into a multi-use development with retail space, offices and condominiums. With strong opposition form the neighborhood, the council and the city's planning staff, the plan died and the company took its request off the table.

During the impasse, the course has reverted to an overgrown field, although mowing crews were on the property Wednesday.

"We're going to explore with the public, whether the CRA can play a role in saving it (the course)," Jacobsen said.

Jacobsen, who took the CRA's reigns two months ago, wants to harness the CRA's bonding power to break the impasse.

In 2007, the owners entertained an offer, which eventually fell through, for $28 million to buy the course. The company may sell for less, but any offer would certainly exceed the CRA’s annual $5 million budget. Any plans to purchase the course would require some long-term financing option.

In its current state, the property is assessed at $2.5 million.

But because the CRA is prohibited from spending money outside its boundaries, the council would have to expand the CRA district to include the golf course and the surrounding property.

The process would require a study to determine the need and consent from all the taxing authorities in the district.

Mary Neilson, who lives near the course and has organized support for keeping the area as a golf course, said the plan leaves her with a lot of questions.

“I want to know about how it’s going to affect the property of The Golf Club and the community around it,” Neilson said.

Expanding the CRA wouldn’t increase property taxes for those in the district, Jacobsen said. It would dictate where the agency could spend its money.

Jacobsen has been speaking with the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit with a $70 million annual operating budget. The company could act as an intermediate buyer, he said. The trust would buy the land from the owners and sell without profit to the CRA. The Trust for Public Land can also act as a bridge between inherently sluggish governmental buyers and the private sector.

“There’s basically three issues,” said William Nolan, a consultant for Florida Gulf Ventures. “The price of the property. Two, what are the people down there going to think about being a part of the CRA. And three, what does the City Council think about expanding the CRA.”