Friday, March 07, 2014

Cape Coral Council delves into golf course options

By JIM LINETTE ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Cape Coral will not be purchasing the former Cape Coral Golf & Tennis Club property, at least not on its own, any time soon. City officials indicated they would prefers to explore other options to keep it as green space or a park rather than just walk away and leave it to the whim of developers.

The status of the long vacant, blighted course in southeast Cape off Country Club and Palm Tree boulevards would cost the city about $10 million. Money it doesn't have.

City Manager John Szerlag brought three options before City Council Monday night. One, do nothing. Two, buy the property. Or three, form a public-private partnership.

Doing nothing would open the door for owners to sue the city over the land use designation as park land in order to develop it commercially, residentially or mixed use. A lawsuit could expose the city financially to $12 million or more in a judgement, said Szerlag.

Current owners, Mark Anderson of Benchmark Inc. and Bill McHale of Ryan Companies, are offering the city a minimum threshold price of about $10 million. That is several million above the current county appraised value of $640,000.

"That's a huge gap," said Councilmember Jim Burch. "This is the single most important parcel in this city. It has history behind it. This is our one-time chance to save it because once it's gone, it's gone forever."

In purchasing the property, Szerlag suggested using the Trust for Public Lands to negotiate a fair market value price, but the drawback to that is the city would have to repay the TPL over a specified time period, such as five years.

Another option would be to go through the Lee County Conservation 20/20 program, but staff was advised it would not be a priority item because it is not considered sensitive conservation land. Szerlag said the last time a closed golf course property was submitted for 20/20 funds, the application was not viewed favorably.

The city also could issue a General Obligation Bond to purchase and restore the property and require a majority of registered voters to vote in a special referendum. In effect, it would raise property taxes. Szerlag said the GO Bond would need to be $16 to $20 million to buy and develop the parcel as a course or park, creating a minimum of $500,000 to $1 million per year in recurring operating costs. The city also would be on the hook for $150,000 to hold a special election on the bond but not before next year.

Szerlag's recommendation to the council was option three, public-private partnership.
"It could be turned into a linear park that would circumnavigate the entire perimeter of the property," said Szerlag. "The interior would be driven by existing market conditions and the community's needs. I believe this is the best option for the benefit of the community."

The 175-acre parcel is for sale and Anderson confirmed to the board that they are accepting offers and there is "a short fuse" regarding any transaction.

Perhaps 30 residents of the area showed up to lobby the council to buy or keep the course what it is. However, there were complaints that the property is being neglected by the owners who have not even mowed the grass.

"There is no way the city can buy the property," said Councilmember Rick Williams. "Taking over that property, too, we would lose the tax benefit. We have to have investors involved. I agree with the suggestion to get the Council For Progress involved through Joe Mazurkiewicz (BJM Consulting) and even the Horizon Council. These are the guys who can bring the money to the table."

Burch, who has been deeply involved in preserving and restoring the course, read a memo he sent to fellow council members before Szerlag's options memo was made public.

In the memo, Burch said he talked to the city manager on the phone and, "I voiced my concern that, in my opinion, the options he spoke of and the conditions and suppositions he used to formulate those options were inaccurate, could be construed as leading council to a conclusion that was not directed, could have conflicts of interest and could present legal ramifications as well. For the record, I would like to state that the comments made in the memo written by the CM are not reflective of this council member at this time and the predictions and statements regarding the owners are not a reflection of the city's position or its beliefs."

Burch continues, "To that end, I will speak of the importance of this parcel and not the options that are mentioned in the memo in hopes that I can convince this council not to make one of the most damaging decisions that it may ever make with respect to the future of this city. There are organizations such as the Trust For Public Land and golf course management and construction firms that have been involved in offering solutions in the past. The possibility of a true public-private partnership with a prospective buyer of the parcel is another possibility. The bottom-line for this issue is that the city not only could secure the property, it should secure the property. This is not an issue about 'now is not the time' as we hear often. This is an issue that simply put - 'if not now, then never,' and that is the tragedy of the course that the city is leaning into at this time."

Burch added, "This parcel that was given a land use designation of Parks & Recreation was done so by the founding fathers for a purpose, and that was to maintain a quality of life and a venue that would provide the heart of Cape Coral an engine to draw more business and residents. They also understood that land use designation carries far more weight than underlying zoning and so designated the use accordingly. I implore this council to do the right thing and recognize the responsibility that we have to all residents and find a way to maintain this open space."

Council members seemed to be swayed as all who spoke favored keeping the property as park or green space.

"Let's get the ball rolling with Mazurkiewicz and the Council For Progress involvement with the owners," said Councilmember Rana Erbrick, who made it a formal motion and it passed unanimously. "TPL is not off the table either, in fact it can be a part of this."

Councilmember Richard Leon added," I love the idea of green space. The city does not have the money to buy it, but I would like to see it stay the way it is. I ask Mr. Anderson to at least cut the grass."

That comment brought instant applause from the group of residents who endured several hours of discussions to the bitter end.