Is sustainable renovation of the St. Johns Golf Club, a county-owned facility, possible without putting the cost on the backs of taxpayers?
That’s one question St. Johns County commissioners returned to Tuesday after a long break from the discussion — thanks largely to another hurricane and the ensuing workload on county staff. The presentation and ensuing discussion, including input from several nearby residents and golf club members, spanned nearly two hours.
By a 4-1 vote, commissioners approved spending $165,000 out of capital reserves for the golf course to compete construction documents for a renovated 18-hole course ($135,000) and do some immediate drainage inspections and modifications ($30,000). The drainage work includes internal inspection, structural analysis, sediment removal and culvert rehabilitation.
Commissioner Jeb Smith was alone in dissent. He had questioned whether government should be involved in keeping a golf course afloat when there are public health and safety issues and other concerns to be addressed. He said there are real risks involved and the county should consider handing off the facility to a private company.
Commission Chair Henry Dean, who had recused himself from the discussion and vote on a prior Task Order in May, erring on the side of caution due to having a family member who works at the golf club, said it has since been determined by the county attorney’s office that he actually does not have a conflict of interest.
County Attorney Patrick McCormack said Tuesday’s vote did not constitute approval or denial of any major modification. He said any development-related changes will be separately noticed and heard by the board, at which time the public can express its specific concerns.
The vote was the first board action on the fate of the golf course since May.
The golf course, a frequent target of scrutiny and criticism during budget season, has had its ups and downs over the years, prompting the county to explore its options for getting the facility back on the fairway financially.
Opened in 1989, it’s currently a 27-hole course of which only 18 are playable.
There were 51,207 rounds of play last fiscal year, but that’s nowhere near the high water mark of 72,489 in 2008. (Asked by Smith whether golf is increasing or decreasing in popularity, Wes Tucker, director of golf for the county, said the industry numbers last year were “pretty flat.”)
The current golf course and unused acreage had an appraised value of $3.28 million in 2017. But aging infrastructure requires maintenance and capital outlay and lack of improvements is costing rounds of play, and, therefore, revenue.
In 2015, the commission issued a request for proposals to formulate a Golf Course Master Plan and selected Ponte Vedra Beach-based LarsenGolf to complete the project.
Task Order 1 was for an evaluation of the condition of the course, for $26,500. Task Order 2, the subject of the May discussion, was for production of a master plan, a land plan and a redesigned golf course, along with revenue/expense models, for $125,000.
On Tuesday, the county again floated the possibility of a public-private partnership to make about $3.1 million in improvements to be done by a developer in exchange for the county’s unused acreage (with an assumed developed value of the land at about $3.1 million), which would also go back on the tax roll.
Officials say the county’s land use, zoning and development regulations allow for 267 additional residential units on this “surplus property” and that LarsenGolf currently recommends 208 units. A major modification of the land to a planned unit development would be required for the additional units.
This solution is not without its problems. There is existing and proposed development currently outside the five-mile Fire Rescue service area, with the closest station at the corner of W. King Street and Holmes Boulevard.
There are already more than 500 existing homes using one main access, shared with the golf club. Additional construction could require construction of another an additional access point.
Drainage was identified as one of the largest concerns in May but county staff on Tuesday said the overall drainage system has since been confirmed as “adequate” and that “no major drainage system obstructions” have been identified.
Smith asked whether the improved drainage will be able to handle any extra development, to which county staff said the responsibility for that drainage would fall on the developer.
Assuming the county gets its price and all goes according to plan, how far does $3.1 million get you?
According to a cost estimates breakdown provided by the county, $950,000 would go to irrigation, $650,000 to grassing, $500,000 to green construction, $380,000 to site work, $185,000 to golf course drainage, $170,000 to bunker/sand trap construction, $170,000 for cart paths, $30,000 for tee construction and $25,000 for mobilization of the construction equipment.
Commissioner Jay Morris said while he certainly wouldn’t buy a golf course, the county owns it.
He did, however, express some interest in scaling back the proposed improvements so the county could start making money on the facility on a shorter timeline by not shutting down the course for a year for extensive renovations. For comparison, he said the county’s libraries and beach services don’t make any money and have to be subsidized.
Commissioner Jimmy Johns said he wants a “true net zero cost” to the county, meaning value engineering in the event the county gets more or less than it’s seeking. He said he anticipates a lot of unexpected expenses that will go beyond what’s listed in the rehabilitation costs, and, consequently, would like to see a “big picture” contract that ties the sales price to construction resulting in net zero costs to the county.
While many residents speaking during public comment expressed general support for improving the golf course and for the county to retain control of the facility, there were concerns ranging from homeowners association responsibilities and insurance rates to drainage and traffic.
Look for more in The Record soon on the county’s golf course and the challenges ahead.