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CDD Consideration of Purchase of Westchase Golf Course Postponed to Feb. 6

It was one of the most crowded, most contentious Westchase community meetings of the last decade.

The Jan. 9 meeting of the Westchase Community Development District (CDD) was dominated by Harbor Links and Greens residents’ reactions to news that the district would vote on a letter of intent to purchase the Westchase Golf Course. More than two dozen residents packed the small meeting room in the Westchase Community Association (WCA) office building on Parley Drive for a meeting that typically sees no more than two or three residents attend on average each month.

Outside there were as many as 40 more residents who wished to enter but were prevented due to the building’s legal capacity.

Under public notice requirements for the meeting, the district could not switch to a larger venue at the last minute. This left a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Deputy and CDD staff to manage the outside crowd, which provoked a controversy of its own. The following day on WOW’s Facebook News Group, Westchase Neighborhood News, residents such as Amanda Siftar, Maria Kletchka and Sebastian de Almanara,  who showed up at the meeting but were not permitted to enter due to space constraints, insisted CDD staff members asked them to leave their names and told them the meeting had been postponed a week. This contradicted a notice on the building door that stated the meeting would address three topics and residents attending for each one would be allowed to enter as space permitted. When asked by WOW, CDD Office Manager Sonny Whyte stated she hadn’t told waiting residents the meeting was cancelled. She stated she had informed them that no formal vote on the matter would be held in the Jan. 9 meeting but would instead be considered at the district’s Feb. 6 meeting, which will be re-noticed as occurring at the Westchase Swim and Tennis Center, whose meeting room can handle a bigger crowd.

Contrary to impressions CDD staff left with residents who departed, the meeting was held, with the golf course purchase one of three major topics supervisors addressed. While many of those residents left, more than two dozen like de Almanara remained and eventually filled the meeting room to capacity when CDD supervisors turned to discussion about the course.

Upon the meeting’s start, supervisors did, however, briefly entertain the possibility of continuing the meeting to a later date at a site with a larger capacity. They ultimately elected to postpone any consideration of a formal motion about the golf course until Feb. 6.

Relying on conversations with CDD Supervisor Greg Chesney on Monday, Jan. 7, WOW Online reported that supervisors intended to vote on a letter of intent to purchase the golf course, triggering a six month period of due diligence before they held a formal vote to close on the purchase. Subsequently, CDD Attorney Erin McCormick informed supervisors that because the topic had not been put on the meeting’s previously announced agenda, no formal vote could be taken that day.

Instead supervisors addressed concerned residents’ questions, misconceptions and their motivation in considering the purchase.

Opening discussion of the agenda item, CDD Chair Jim Mills, who identified himself as a Greens property owner living on the golf course, joked with the audience. “After 20 years of living here, it’s amazing when something gets someone’s attention, you do take time and show up at the meetings.”

Mills observed that in the fall supervisors voted on the district’s sizeable budget establishing homeowners’ assessments and not a single resident was present for the public budget forum.

“We trusted you,” a resident shouted from the audience, triggering laughter.

The comment aptly captured the sentiment of the room, which appeared rooted in a level of distrust about the district’s handling of the golf course matter. “Could you tell us the truth of what’s happening?” another resident immediately pressed.

Supervisor Greg Chesney then described what the district had done thus far regarding the course. Chesney stated he was tasked by the board at its November meeting to meet with the golf course owner, Nick Neubauer, after Supervisor Brian Ross stated he had heard the course was for sale.

During the meeting, Chesney, and the WOW reporter present (when an audience member requested it), delineated subsequent district actions and discussions. In mid-December, Chesney, the district’s engineer and Westchase Community Association (WCA) President Ruben Collazo took a tour of golf course property. Subsequently Chesney and Collazo met with Neubauer over lunch to discuss potential terms of a sale. At December’s meeting, Stantec landscape architect Neal Stralow, present to discuss potential plans for re-landscaping Westchase neighborhood entrances, also touched on whether the golf course could be turned into a linear park of bike and hiking trails if the district purchased the golf course and determined maintaining it as a course was no longer financially feasible.

Subsequently, Chesney emphasized, the district acquired more financial information about the course that gave him greater confidence that the golf course could be made more profitable with proper investments. He emphasized to residents present that there were no current plans for the district to purchase the course and immediately turn it into park space.

This didn’t fully mollify residents. The most vocal among them were Edward Titan and Todd Marks of The Greens; Larry Hirsch and Paul Fraleigh of Harbor Links; and Ken Blair of Glencliff. Hirsch and Titan demanded assurances from the district that if they moved forward with the golf course’s purchase that the district first guarantee that they be operated as golf courses in perpetuity.

In reality, the WCA Board and the CDD Board cannot bind future boards to any decision.

When Greens resident Sebastian de Almanara inquired how the district thought it could pay for the purchase, Chesney responded, “I believe we have the financial resources to pay for it.”

Chesney stated the district’s bank had informally assured him of a 20-year line of credit to cover the purchase. Chesney added, “We don’t think there will be any change to the assessments of any residents.”

Chesney added the district was in its last year of paying for recent park improvements, after which it had approximately $340,000 to $350,000 in capital funds available. Later, Chesney stated his initial calculations for the course’s purchase, its maintenance and the investment of $350,000 in upgrades would represent $65 per year of each Westchase home’s overall CDD assessments.

While Supervisors Mills echoed CDD Attorney Erin McCormick’s announcement that no formal decision would be made at the meeting, residents present still pressed a number of issues.

Hirsch insisted that as an original owner on the golf course, he and other homeowners were guaranteed that their properties would always be adjacent to a golf course. He insisted supervisors research original documents to discover homeowner guarantees of golf course property. “It’s our investment. And our money. It’s why we’re here,” he said.

Titan, who attended the meeting with a golf club, inquired about the course’s current zoning. McCormick stated it was zoned for a golf course and that residents could always weigh in should another owner attempt to change its zoning with Hillsborough County.

Chesney emphasized that while he had acquired some information about formal restrictions on the golf course’s future use. He added, however, “We are still in the process of determining what can be done there.”

Historically, however, despite the area being zoned for a golf course, Westchase’s developer was able to win county approval for the construction of Saville Rowe on what once was golf course property.

Chesney also addressed another resident’s concerns that the district was just acquiring the golf course to turn around and sell it to developers and Marks’ question about whether the district would be precluded from developing the land itself. Chesney responded, “We would be unable to develop it.”

McCormick clarified that under Florida law, residential and commercial land development is not included in a CDD’s permitted responsibilities.

Chesney also emphasized that historically the Westchase CDD had never sold land. Instead, he stated its practice has been to acquire land to protect the community from future development. He acknowledged that the district could get rid of land it owned but stated that the process was complicated.

Stating he supported the district’s research into the purchase, Harbor Links resident Terry Schechinger offered a cautious note to residents speaking out against it. He stated a previous community he had lived in decided to sell its golf course to a private owner to save residents money. “It went to hell,” he said. “It was not the same kind of environment or same kind of place.”

Residents in the back of the meeting room asked what the district’s rush was. One emphasized that the course had been for sale for years. “If he could have sold it to a developer for more money, he would already have done it,” one insisted, referring to the current owner.

Fraleigh emphasized that the district had to carefully lay out its rationale for the purchase, weighing whether it made more sense for the WCA to instead purchase the course. He offered an ominous warning unless communication was improved. “This is going to explode,” he said.

Supervisor Brian Ross then weighed in, saying there was no rush. “You guys are on mile 15 of a marathon and we’re on mile one,” he stated. He cautioned the residents present that the district’s desire for putting the property under contract was merely designed to give them time to investigate the possible purchase without undue pressure or competition from another potential buyer.

Addressing the concerns of Woodbay’s Ken Blair, who insisted it would be markedly unfair to owners on the golf course to change it to any other use, Ross added that he found it personally difficult to tell a golf course homeowner the property’s use would be changed. He added, however, that he had heard from other homeowners who would be equally assessed for the property, that they supported turning it into a park. “What do I tell them?” he asked.

Mills observed, “Less than ten percent of the community lives on the golf course.”

He added that if the district announced it was purchasing the golf course and maintaining it as a course simply to benefit the homes along it, the room could very well be filled the following month with residents opposed to footing the bill.

When Blair reemphasized that he bought his home many years ago specifically because it was on a golf course, Mills stated the district’s goal was to avoid the experience that golf course owners in Walden Lake in Polk County experienced. “They bought on golf course property. It failed,” Mills said. Saying those owners now lived adjacent to an overgrown, unmaintained mess, Mills said, “They’re screwed.”

Explaining his motivation in encouraging the board to investigate the course’s purchase, Ross stated, “I don’t want a bad outcome. I don’t want a bankruptcy there.” He added, “That’s not fair to those homeowners. That’s not fair to the community.”

Ross added, “I want to get it under contract,” stating that would allow the district to its research. At any time during the due diligence period, Ross added, the district could pull out of the deal having expended money only on its own legal counsel. “That is a good deal for the Westchase community.”

In recent years, the district has repeatedly approached the golf course manager to address falling maintenance standards along the rights of way and near Westchase’s residential properties. A repeated cause of concern had been the golf course’s previous management, its neglect of its ponds and its effect on nearby homeowners and the district. In recent months, supervisors have even expressed a willingness to approach the course and request a maintenance easement along course property lining Countryway and Linebaugh so that the area can be maintained to Westchase standards and not undermine them.

In recent discussions about the purchase, supervisors’ comments have made clear that, based on the course financials they have seen, the Westchase Golf Course has repeatedly lost money in recent years.

Closing discussion, CDD Chair Greg Chesney stated that while the district initially discussed turning the course into a linear park of trails, his exploration of costs associated with turning the golf club around and running it as compared to the expense of converting the course into parkland and maintaining that made him far less interested in the park idea. “It’s just a colossal expense,” he stated.

The conversation concluded when Mills announced the stenographer recording the meeting needed a break.

Marks requested that the next CDD meeting be scheduled after 5 p.m. to enable more folks who work to attend. While supervisors declined to change the traditional meeting start time, they did commit to holding discussion of the golf course issue toward the end of the February meeting, allowing those who arrive late from work to weigh in.

Supervisors may discuss the matter if they hold a yet-to-be determined workshop on Monday, Feb. 5, at the Maureen Gauzza Public Library on Countryway Boulevard at 4 p.m. During a workshop, however, they cannot take formal votes or actions. Thus, the next opportunity for supervisors to approve either a purchase contract or a letter of intent to purchase the golf course is at their monthly meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 6, at 4 p.m. Due to expected larger attendance, the meeting venue has been switched to the Westchase Swim and Tennis Center meeting room on Countryway Boulevard. All residents may attend.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

Editor's note: Due to the length of the meeting and the significance of issues covered, this article represents WOW's coverage of only that part of the CDD meeting that addressed the golf course purchase. The balance of topics addressed at the Jan. 9 meeting appears in a separate article about the CDD meeting.

Posted Jan. 10, 2018

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