St. Johns County commissioners Tuesday voted 4-0 in favor of proceeding with the next phase of a plan that could lead to reinvestment in and reconfiguration of the county-owned St. Johns Golf Club.
Commissioner Henry Dean recused himself from voting, saying he wanted to err on the side of caution with a potential conflict of interest due to a relative who works at the facility.
Up to $125,000 will come out of the golf course’s reserves to complete Phase II of a three-phase contract with Ponte Vedra Beach-based Larsen Golf to develop a master plan and provide architectural design services. Commissioners entered into the contract with Larsen in November 2015 in the hopes of bringing the course back up to par.
The debate seems to have narrowed down to selling the property outright and getting the county out from under any responsibilities or liabilities, or embracing the property’s long-term potential by pursuing a public-private partnership to help fund improvements.
Offering his Phase I findings Tuesday, Erik Larsen, president and owner of the consulting company, said the facility’s assets outweigh its liabilities.
Despite aging infrastructure, including drainage and irrigation systems, and crumbling cart paths, Larsen said there is already strong community involvement, and a growing residential and tourism market.
He said the annual rounds of play at the county’s facility are already higher than the national average, even factoring in the slow years coming out of the Great Recession.
He estimated there are at least 75 acres of land that could be sold and placed back on the tax rolls to make way for about 150 single-family homes under the existing Future Land Use Map designation.
Larsen said new users from additional development would increase rounds of play and pro shop sales, and that improvements made possible by capital from a land sale and increased membership would boost the facility’s potential for special events and tournaments.
During his assessment, Larsen described the facility as “simple,” “common” and “ordinary,” but “certainly adequate.” Nonetheless, he said if he had to choose one word to describe it, he’d have to say “broken.”
He identified drainage, irrigation and green construction/turf quality as the big three culprits.
He said the property “fills like a bath tub” when it rains and can take up to 3-4 days to drain, but he also said he believes there’s a plug somewhere, and it could simply be a matter of locating it and pulling the chain.
Throughout a roughly two-hour discussion, commissioners brought up a number of concerns about variables and unknowns yet to be addressed.
Many of Commissioner Jeb Smith’s concerns hit on unknowns, such as what is causing the drainage and whether it can be fixed.
He said he’s an agriculture man who comes from a long line of agriculture men and whose father said there were just three things one had to think about when buying land in Florida.
“No. 1 is drainage, No. 2 is drainage, No. 3 is drainage,” Smith said.
Larsen said the course drained well for years and that he suspects the economics of golf are more to blame than environmental factors or any affects of nearby development.
Commissioner Jay Morris said it was his understanding a developer has made an unsolicited offer of about $2 million for the unused acres, but irrigation alone, while the largest anticipated expense, could cost $1.3 million or $1.4 million.
Larsen hinted irrigation could probably be done for closer to $1 million and said reconstruction of greens could be another $500,000. Meanwhile, he said he doesn’t know what the drainage situation is going to look like yet.
He said he was confident $2 million could help them fix most, if not all, the critical needs and that the county, in the long-term, could proceed with other improvements using increased revenues from improved facilities and more nearby homes (and, thus, memberships).
Smith questioned whether the county is charging enough if the higher-than-average rounds of play are not producing the funds necessary to keep up with wear and tear.
Additionally, he said how many people are playing golf seems to be driven largely by the market and questioned whether government should dabble in those uncertainties.
It was also unclear whether the county or developers could legally require homeowners in the new development to buy golf club memberships as a condition of purchasing a home there. Existing neighborhoods surrounding the golf course don’t have that requirement.
In the meantime, Several members of surrounding communities spoke generally in support of reviving the facility, or at least seeing what would or would not be feasible through a partnership of some kind.
Others called for some more in-depth long-range planning for the area, citing concerns with access, crowded roadways and deficiencies with other amenities.
Phase II will entail development of an optimized 18-hole golf course layout, a plan to allow for a sale of the surplus property, as well as an analysis of the course’s drainage system with conceptual improvements; cost estimates for the solutions will also be provided.
Additionally, there will be cost estimates for replacement of all infrastructure associated with the golf course, an assessment to determine the total acreage of managed turf, 5- and 10-year models of all costs and revenue, as well as a determination on the legality of requiring memberships of new homeowners.
Officials say Larsen Golf is expected to come back with findings in about four months.
Hearings on ICI/Middlebourne’s requests for a Comprehensive Plan amendment and Planned Unit Development rezoning were continued, expected to come back at a future meeting.
Commissioners at their March 21 meeting had already delayed making a decision on the proposed 426-home project, which was unanimously recommended for denial in January by the Planning and Zoning Agency. Concerns have been raised by commissioners and PZA members about crowded schools and roads in the northwest.
Developers behind the project notified the county May 8 they intended to ask for the continuance “to give the project team more time to obtain estimates for ICI’s potential construction of off-site roadway improvements (Longleaf Pine Parkway east and Veterans Parkway north).”