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Plan in hand key to city purchase of old golf course

January 26, 2018
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

On Monday, Cape Coral City Council is expected to discuss staff-presented options related to a privately held 175-acre parcel in the South Cape that once was home to a golf course and country club complex.

Built by the city's developers and opened in 1963, the then- Cape Coral Golf & Tennis Resort was the place to go when our community was still in its infancy. But times and interests change: The property has changed hands several times, the clubhouse was razed years ago, the golf course was reconfigured to make way for condos and then closed when the current owner of the property found that operating the course was not fiscally sustainable.

Since then, the property owner has tried to sell, or develop, the site off Palm Tree Boulevard.

The School District of Lee County was interested in the property to build up to five schools, but backed off the possible $26 million purchase in the face of resident protest.

Ryan Companies then submitted a comprehensive plan amendment and land use change to allow for mixed-use development.

The then-sitting City Council denied the request in the wake of resident protest. The board action was upheld on appeal, paid for by city taxpayers.

Ryan then submitted a comprehensive plan amendment to allow for residential development, with national builder D.R. Horton on board to develop a gated community while also donating 12 acres for a community park.

This request also died in the wake of resident protest. Cape Coral City Council deadlocked 4-4 on whether to transmit the request to the state, effectively killing the application.

Ryan has now notified the city that it will submit an identical amendment requesting a land use change from parks to residential, which matches the site's zoning. That new application is expected to be the hands of the city's Department of Community Development the first week of February. If the comp plan amendment to allow the land use change passes muster, Ryan says it will again submit a Planned Development Project application to the city that would make way for up to 500 single-family homes, a proposal similar to the one that died last August with Council's deadlock.

Or the city can buy the site.

Executive Vice President Bill McHale has also indicated a willingness for Ryan Companies to sell the property to the city if Council agrees. The price would be $12 million and would include environmental remediation at the seller's cost.

Should Council reject both a land use change or purchase - which City Manager John Szerlag has advised are the only options - Ryan will move on to a plan B of its own - another lawsuit challenging the city's inaction. This time, though, the ruling is likely to come out in favor of the property owner as the city itself agreed in the first suit that the "highest and best use" for the site is residential development.

A couple of things.

First, Mr. Szerlag is correct in his analysis to Council: The city's two options are public purchase or bowing to the inevitable, private development of some sort.

Should Council opt to buy, city staff has presented a proposed $13,525,000 improvement plan for the site.

Suggested for Council consideration Monday are plans calling for a $6 million community center; $500,000 in garden areas to include an arboretum; a $775,000 amphitheater; a $900,000 corporate pavilion and restrooms; $300,000 for pickleball courts; a $4.5 million, 3-mile linear park; and a $200,000 parking lot.

Mr. Szerlag identifies four possible payment methods including a 10-year bank loan to be paid back with General Fund tax dollars, i.e property taxes.

The three other funding options on the table are:

n Potential proceeds from the sale, lease or establishment of a public-private partnership for the development of the Seven Islands acreage, which consists of 48 waterfront acres and an adjoining 46 parcels off Old Burnt Store Road in the north Cape.

n Other General Funds freed up by a reshuffling of capital needs.

n Possible grants, including another request to Lee County for 20/20 Conservation Funds.

Depending on how Monday's discussion goes, staff will ask for a formal Council vote on purchase next month.

If yes, staff will enter into purchase negotiations.

If no, Ryan/Florida Gulf Ventures will proceed with its comp plan amendment and PDP application.

As we stated in December, the purchase plan is a mind-blowing proposal that has the potential to be win-win for both the city and the property owner.

The funding options, though, present a challenge for Council.

One, any encumbrance of the Seven Islands, which the city says it has an appraised value of $25.3 million for mixed-use development is problematic

Touted as Cape Corals best-chance opportunity for "destination" type development, the city spent months holding workshops before tasking Mr. Szerlag and staff with the formation of a work plan to include land use designations, any necessary comprehensive plan amendments, zoning and infrastructure requirements to accomplish Council's approved development goal. That "vision plan" calls for up to eight-story mid-rise buildings with various destination-type amenities mixed in including a marina and community center along with the multi-family residential and a resort hotel.

The city's timeline for requests for proposal to see if there is developer interest, though, isn't even expected to be released to prospective vendors until late June. This means that not only does the city not have enough facts to fully evaluate any type of land swap, it may not work with Ryan's targeted purchase timetable unless the city fronts at least some of the purchase price.

Reshuffling of capital needs?

What projects will get pitched or postponed to buy and develop the acreage as a regional park?

And Conservation20/20 funding, which would need to be approved by the Lee County Board of County Commissioners?

As Mr. Szerlag points out in a followup memo sent to Council Thursday, the county already has turned such a request down. Conservation 20/20 funding is for conservation and is intended to preserve, in perpetuity, environmentally sensitive lands.

The old golf course site, which has been developed and now needs remediation, does not qualify although we do understand why some nearby residents really like this option: It basically would turn the property into, for the most part, a greenbelt with "passive" limited recreation opportunities for the public.

That takes at least one win out of "win-win" for the developer and the taxpaying public from which the money to buy the land would come - most of whom would see little bang for their buck.

It does not, however, mean a county contribution is a no-go out of the gate. Lee County has shared funding for economic development/parks projects in both the city of Fort Myers and Bonita Springs.

We like that idea, already being explored individually by some members of Council doing their due diligence in advance of Monday's meeting.

As stated on these pages in December:

We agree "something has to be done" regarding the old golf course acreage.

We agree that there are only two options on the table at this point: city purchase of the land or approval of a comp plan amendment and subsequent PDP to allow residential development as abuts the property.

We agree purchase could be not only be beneficial to the city but something our children -and their children - will be thankful for in the years to come.

But we continue to highlight three caveats: The numbers must work, the funding plan must make good fiscal sense and, key, that the city also commit to a development plan for the site that will benefit all of the taxpayers who are paying for it, not just those who would like it to stay lean and green.

Otherwise, what the taxpayers of Cape Coral are likely to cull from purchase of the old course are more pie-in-the-sky initiatives like the Academic Village and Festival Park, great ideas just waiting - and waiting- on interested partners and lots more money.

If purchase is the way Council opts to go, commitment to not only a buy but to a detailed parks develop plan that will benefit all of the city's residents must - must - be a given.

We look forward to Monday's discussion.

- Breeze editorial



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