Council decision next in land use request
After listening to more than two and a half hours of testimony that included approximately 20 speakers – all opposed – the Cape Coral Planning & Zoning Commission rejected a requested land use change for the old golf course acreage this week.
P&Z voted 5-2 Wednesday to reject the request brought forward by DR Horton, which proposes to build up to 771 units on the 175-acre site.
The vote got a standing ovation from the Save Our Recreation contingent, a neighborhood group which packed the chambers in opposition.
Whether that happiness is short-lived will be up to the Cape Coral City Council – and possibly the courts.
While the designated land use permits parks and recreational use, the land is zoned for single-family residential, a reason city staff had recommended approval.
And therein lies the legal rub – how to balance the legal rights of the parties on an issue that is likely to wind up in court no matter which way Council votes when the matter comes to it in August.
Rana Erbrick, the city council liaison to the P&Z board, said the Planning & Zoning Commission vote went the way she thought it would, with the Save Our Rec crowd being a key to not only the denial, but potentially for a compromise.
“It was a very charged crowd, and they can do a lot to facilitate something with the property that the city at this point cannot do,” Erbrick said.
The city previously put a land swap on the table with DR Horton. The national builder said publicly it had no interest.
Erbrick said she fears the golf course decision, either way, could prove very costly if, in the end, it imposes a legally indefensible land use on private property.
“My biggest fear is that the city could be held responsible for lots of monetary damages and still not have control of the property,” Erbrick said. “They could say we weren’t being open-minded enough to what they wanted. Now, we have to weigh out the diminished capacity of that property being economically viable.”
At the P&Z hearing, attorney Richard Yovanovhich, representing DR Horton in its request for the land use change, said the property has always been deemed single-family residential even when it was a golf course. If the owners are saddled with a piece of property that can only be used for recreation, it’s worthless, he added.
DR Horton proposes to build as many as 771 units on the 175.25-acre property that served as the city golf course for decades before it was closed in 2006. The site is owned by Florida Gulf Ventures; it is under contract to the national home builder.
Those opposed to the housing development, meanwhile, are savoring the decision.
The “Save our Recreation” contingent, a group of about 100 with most wearing green T-shirts made their position known early, meeting for a small rally outside City Hall before Wednesday’s hearing.
Shirley Fendler and Dorothy Hillebold were among them, carrying signs and feeling confident the commission was going to vote in their favor.
“I love our chances. We don’t give up. It’s been a desert for 10 years and we would love to see it go back to being a golf course,” said Fendler, who has been a Cape resident for 37 years. “But I would like to see it as a park and some kind of recreation or maybe even a nine-hole course.”
“I would like to see it as a golf course again, maybe park on the other side,” Hillebold said. “I hope they do something, but not homes. Too much traffic and clutter.”
Opponents brought up what they said was the historical importance of the golf course, which was once used as a draw to get people to move to Cape Coral.
Attorney Ralf Brookes said that Florida Gulf Ventures bought a golf course and therefore it should stay a golf course, or something recreational.
Resident Max Forgey stressed that this could be the most important issue the city has dealt with in years.
“This is the biggest decision the city council will ever make. You (the P&Z) serve without pay and we count on you to make your recommendations without fear or favor and recommend to this council the denial of this application,” Forgey said.
Public comment was unanimously in favor of denial. In addition to the historial significance of the site, opponents touted the sighting of threatened and protected animals such as bald eagles and burrowing owls and the need for more recreational sites in the city.
P&Z commissioners also brought up the lack of enough park land in the city, according to the Parks and Rec Master Plan, and the fact that the central location and lack of accumulated land there makes it a perfect location for a park, earning applause, which became an ovation moments later when the vote came in.
Ehren Gerhard, a recent homeowner whose wife spoke up in favor of recreation, was delighted.
“I moved here because of the amenities and opportunities for recreation. It was tense and nerve-wracking, but I think they made a good decision,” Gerhard said. “We live close to it and we would use it every day.”
“I am thrilled the commissioners moved in the right direction to protect that area. We don’t need any more mass development or cookie-cutter communities,” said Ruth McGregor, of the Sierra Club. “The surrounding communities will be thrilled they have a place to enjoy and return to its natural habitat.”
The request will come before the Cape Coral City Council for its consideration in August.
If approved, the land use change then will go to the state for its consideration.