Proposed land use change fails
By JIM LINETTE
Nearly five hours after bringing Monday’s City Council meeting to order, Mayor Marni Sawicki cast the deciding vote that quashed a land use change request by the owners of the vacant former golf course on Palm Tree Boulevard.
Florida Gulf Ventures had requested a comprehensive plan amendment that would have changed the future land use of the 175-acre parcel from parks to single family residential. The site is zoned for single family homes and a national homebuilder had proposed to buy the site off Palm Tree Boulevard and build a gated community there.
Sawicki’s “no” vote evenly split the council on the request to transmit the amendment to the state 4-4 with council members Rick Williams, John Carioscia and Jim Burch also voting against the change.
Before the meeting even started, shockwaves filtered through the assembling residents with the news that builder D.R. Horton had withdrawn its Planned Development Project from the process that proposed to build 600 homes on 175 acres of what was The Golf Club.
That withdrawal may have been a deciding factor for at least one member of the elected board.
“I have waffled on this many times,” Sawicki said. “When things get to this point I always go with my gut and my gut tells me something is going on here. Maybe they are looking for more concessions. I don’t know. This last-minute announcement is puzzling. Right now I will not support transmitting the request to the state.”
Hortons withdrawal initially prompted Councilmember Richard Leon to request a continuance of the public hearing on the land use change to a later date. Leon’s motion failed 3-5 as fellow members said they were ready to vote on the land use change regardless of Horton’s decision to back out.
“Something is going on today and I don’t like it,” said Councilmember Jessica Cosden in support of the continuance. “There are some shenanigans going on we don’t know about.”
The presentation on behalf of the property owner attempted to answer Council’s questions.
A lawyer representing landowner Florida Gulf Ventures said his client was interested in a resolution that makes sense and he did not rule out a possible land swap with the city.
City staff supported sending the land use amendment to the state.
The Save Our Recreation group’s presentations and a parade of speakers stepped to the podium opposed.
Former mayor and consultant Joe Mazurkiewicz, on behalf of Save Our Recreation, summed up the two primary objectives in drawing up the city’s Comprehensive Plan in 1989. One was to promote non-residential development and the second was to encourage land assembly for larger projects.
“Does single family residential add value to the city?” Mazurkiewicz said. “It’s all we got. Being threatened with a lawsuit is no way to govern a city. The property land use as park was purposely done with the advice and consent of the landowner at the time. The last thing this city needs is more single family homes.”
After the presentations and public input, Councilmember Marilyn Stout took the lead with a motion to approve the land use change.
“Golf is not sustainable for this property,” Stout said. “The city’s own golf course is subsidized by council. Even Palmetto Pines opened up its membership to draw people in to survive. Think how another golf course in the city would divide play even more.
“It’s not our job to give you a park,” Stout told the audience. “We don’t have the funds to buy, develop or maintain the property. I’m sorry to hear D.R. Horton is leaving, but I am elected to represent 180,000 residents, not the 10,000 (petition signatures) in a small area.”
Councilmember Jim Burch, though, called changing the land use counterintuitive for a pre-platted community to divide up the course for more single family homes.
He also didn’t like the implication that a failure to transmit would result in litigation.
“I don’t like someone else tell us what we have to do with this property by threatening a lawsuit,” Burch said. “This is the most important decision this council will ever, ever have to make. We have to do what is right to preserve this space.”
Leon, who represents the district in which the golf course property is located, has been a staunch opponent of development during his time on council.
Nevertheless, he said efforts to prevent that had failed and Council had to act accordingly.
“At the end of the day, I’m sorry,” he said. “I fought hard for three years trying to get the city or county to buy this property, or do a land swap. It’s in my district. I tried, but it was not good enough, I’m sorry, but I have to think about the budget.”
After the vote, Leon suggested council put an item on a coming agenda for a discussion on what the city should do next. He alluded to negotiating a solution with Florida Gulf Ventures and a possible swap of land with the city.
Council has several meetings scheduled in the coming weeks, including a joint meeting with the Budget Review Committee on Tuesday. There is a special meeting at 4:30 p.m. next Monday that is required each year to put city assessments on the Lee County tax bill.
A special meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 7, which is the first mandatory public hearing in the budget approval process. Another special meeting will be held on Monday, Sept. 11, at 3 p.m. to be followed by a regular council meeting at 4:30 p.m.