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Council consensus: Pursue purchase of old golf course acreage

By Staff | Jan 30, 2018

After years of on-again, off-again debate, the city of Cape Coral agreed to pursue purchase of the privately held, 175-acre site dubbed the old golf course.

Cape Coral City Council on Monday reached a consensus to advance city acquisition of the acreage off Palm Tree Boulevard in the South Cape, agreeing also look for help from Lee County to help fund the buy which carries a $12 million asking price.

The next step will be a formal Council vote in February.

The first-step decision was greeted with applause by audience members who packed council chambers, many of them wearing green to signify support.

Nearly everyone who came to the Council workshop meeting backed the city buying the property from the Ryan Companies, which had a representative there.

View differed as to what should be done with the site, if acquired, but those speaking agreed it would serve as a hub for the entire city and provide an extra draw to the South Cape where the Southeast 47th Terrace streetscape project has begun and the Bimini Basin redevelopment project is still pending.

City Manager John Szerlag said the city is interested in staying out of court and avoiding the possibility of a judge deciding the fate of the parcel for which the city has twice nixed development plans. This gives the city two options, either buy or not buy the property, thus allowing Ryan Companies to move forward with a pending development plan for 500-plus homes.

All council members present (Marilyn Stout and Rick Williams were absent) said they support city purchase, preferably with Conservation 20/20 funds, something most concede may not be possible to obtain.

The county has, in the past, declined to consider that funding as the land – which has been developed – meets none of the criteria outlined to qualify for the voters-approved conservation and preservation funding program. The county also just made a major purchase, paying $40 million for the Edison Farms acreage, meaning available funds may be harder to get even if the land meets the criteria and is deemed to be environmentally sensitive.

Councilmemember Dave Stokes was not convinced that 20/20 funding is not an option. He said the city has not received nearly the funds it should considering what its taxpayers contribute to the program. He said less than 9 percent of what the city has spent has come back to Cape Coral, and no Cape properties have been acquired since 2014.

“I love Cape Coral, and I want us to get our share. We need to lobby the BOCC and ask for the money to buy the park. It will be time well spent,” Stokes said.

Mayor Joe Coviello said pursuing Conservation 20/20 funding, at least fully, has a downside.

“Funding with 20/20 would limit us to what we can do. There needs to be a public purpose and other things can be put in there. 20/20 can be a portion,” Coviello said, adding that with all the people moving in and the land values increasing, he doesn’t see the need to increase taxes to make the purchase.

Councilmember Jessica Cosden said another type of partnership with Lee County is possible, but for the city to purchase the property, the county has to be on board.

Regarding other funding options, Council also agreed that trading properties, or using proceeds for a sale of Seven Islands to buy the course, would not be the best.

Szerlag said he will submit a resolution in February, at which time Council will formally vote on the proposed purchase.

The contract will include a provision that Ryan Companies remediate the land at its expense. After a price has been negotiated, the city then would have 18 months to put a funding plan together.

Other issues to be resolved include how the purchase would impact the city’s 122-page Parks and Recreation Master Plan since the golf course is not part of the original plan approved by Council in 2016. The estimated cost of parks projects in the master plan tallied in at $56.7 million, excluding purchase of the golf course and its staff tendered $13.5 million in improvements to develop the acreage with amenities including a community center, gardens, amphitheater and a three-mile walking trail.

While pleased with the consensus vote to purchase, nearby residents also had some concerns related to any improvements to be made.

Several people questioned the site’s ability to absorb water during heavy rain events such as last year with Hurricane Irma and all the rain afterward.

“In Houston, it was the paving over of space that caused the flooding there. The Golf Club absorbed much of the rain. It provides flood control,” said Cheryl Anderson of the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife.

“The issue is water. I don’t want to be like Houston when the next hurricane comes. Consider the future,” said Marie Houser.

Overall, though, residents appeared happy Council seemed ready to buy the property as some have fought for for years.

“We heard a consensus from the council to move forward with the purchase,” said Barth Wolf, president of Save Our Recreation. “Now, they’re looking to look at the options. We’re beyond the point of not talking about it. There are creative people in the city and county that can make a good solution going forward.”

“We love it. It’s wonderful for the city. We have waited so long for this,” said resident Lorre Celsi-Cerbi. “I would like to see some wildlife, but I would also like to see a senior center, bike trails; there’s a myriad of things they can do.”

Some on Council are already looking ahead.

Councilmember John Carioscia, who was on Council for a more controversial $13 million land purchase in 2012 which netted the city Seven Islands, said it was a great decision, and that he already knows what he wants there to generate revenue.

“I would like to see a 2,500-seat outdoor amphitheater, I want to bring in plays and symphonies and create a money-making scenario so the park will pay for itself,” Carioscia said. “In 2012, the land was scattered and didn’t have a central purpose. This does. And do we really need 500 more cars on Cape Coral Parkway at 7:30 a.m.?”