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Plant City Observer Friday, Jan. 8, 2016 2 years ago

A Course Divided: Walden Lake neighbors split over golf club's rezoning plans

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Walden Lake Golf & Country Club plans to submit rezoning plans to the City of Plant City in 2016.
by: Amber Jurgensen Managing Editor

Prime rib night, Sunday brunch, a well-stocked pro shop — this was Sharon Philbin’s experience at her golf clubhouse in San Diego. So when she and her husband relocated to Florida after their retirement in 2008, the couple was attracted to the Plant City community of Walden Lake for its country club and two 18-hole golf courses. 

They bought in Spring Meadow, but then moved near the fourth hole on The Hills course in 2010. 

“How long did we live on the golf course? Shortly,” Philbin says. “Within several years, this is what happened.”

This — the grass grew knee high, the club started serving microwavable hot dogs, bridges collapsed and riding the course in a golf cart felt like a bad roller coaster.

The Walden Lake Golf & Country Club was in bankruptcy. But the residents’ nightmare had just begun. 

Steve Mercer of Visions Golf Inc., the company that owns the golf and country club, announced plans to develop a portion of the Hills and Lakes courses. It would be the only way to salvage the remaining 18 holes, two clay tennis courts, fitness center, junior Olympic-sized pool and 27,000-square-foot clubhouse.

The announcement was made several years ago. Since, the plans have been revised to include an assisted living facility, 156 multi-family homes and 154 single-family homes. But first, Visions Golf must get the portions pegged for development rezoned by the City of Plant City. 

Golfers were out on the green Tuesday, Jan. 6.

Visions Golf is expected to submit revised plans to the city in 2016. 

In the meantime, residents against the rezoning have been vocal. They’ve gathered 1,500 signatures during Saturday meetups at the community’s park. They’ve made matching red t-shirts. They’ve started a website. They’ve joined a lawsuit and then filed a separate lawsuit.

But throughout the past two years, another group has emerged — residents who believe that Walden Lake cannot support 36 holes of golf. 

On the brink of a decision, the Walden Lake community is divided like a fairway cutting through the rough. 

FOR REZONING: Balance through the Swing

"Walden Lake is not unique. It’s happening all over,” Bill Griffin says. He is sitting in the living room of Karen Olson’s home on The Lakes course. 

Griffin, Olson and resident Karen Narey have done their research on the development and golf in general. When the plans were first proposed for development they, too, were against them. But folders of data on Olson’s coffee table have changed their minds. Courses around the United States have found themselves in sand traps. 

The country club would get a makeover from proceeds from development if the rezoning were to go through.

BridgeWater in Lakeland closed in 2011 after bankruptcy. Temple Terrace Golf & Country Club, for which the city was built around in 1925, has had trouble making its payments. Plantation Palms Golf Club in Land O’Lakes closed last year. The list drives on and on. 

It begs the question: is golf dead?

Tough economic times and an oversaturation of courses have contributed to golf’s decline. The 462 million rounds played in 2013 is the lowest since 1995’s 441 million and down from the peak of 492 million in 2000-01, according to Golf Datatech.

“People against (the rezoning and development) think they’re going to have 36 holes of golf again, and everything’s going to be great. But it’s not,” Griffin says. 

Rezone supporters don’t think golf is gone for good. In Walden Lake’s case, it needs to be revamped so that its two 18-hole courses don’t compete with each other. The plan is to renovate the back nine of The Lakes course, currently open, and the back nine of The Hills course, currently closed. Front holes one through nine of The Hills and front holes one through three and nine of The Lakes, along with the driving range, would be used in development. Holes four through eight of The Lakes will remain, either converted to a nine-hole executive or practice course. 

“So when all is said and done there will be at least 23 holes of renovated golf for the community to enjoy,” Mercer says. 

Lakeland-based Ron Garl, who has designed over 250 courses around the world, will lead the renovation. 

The renovation follows in the footsteps of other efforts by Tampa Bay-area courses. Rocky Point Golf Course underwent a $700,000, seven-month renovation and reopened Dec. 4. Twin Brooks, St. Petersburg’s oldest golf, reopened Nov. 6 after a $1.5 million, six-month renovation. 

The possible renovation of Walden Lake Golf & Country Club complements the neighborhood’s pressure to stay updated. Varrea, a development in north Plant City, will break ground in 2016. Varrea will be a live-work-play community with cafes and boutiques nestled between nine subdivisions — but Varrea won’t have a golf course. 

“There’s a lot of people in this community who are golfers, and there are people who want a club,” Narey, who works as a carrier for the Plant City Times & Observer, says. “(Varrea residents) will want a place to golf.”

The plan may be better than the alternative.

“(The land) just sits … pretty soon it’s going to have 36 holes of weeds,” Griffin says. 

AGAINST REZONING: Angle of Approach

Despite a rough picture for golf nationwide, the National Golf Foundation says that “golf continued its macro trend toward stabilization in 2014.”

2014 was the fourth consecutive year that the golfer number (participation) was at about 25 million golfers who played at least one round of golf in the past 12 months, according to the National Golf Foundation. 

Sharon Philbin and Bob Hunter do not want portions of the Walden Lake golf course rezoned.

Those living on the holes planned for development say that Walden Lake can support 36 holes of golf, but it isn’t so much about golf. It’s about the culture of the Walden Lake community. 

While the opening of Disney’s Magic Kingdom made newspaper headlines in the early ‘70s, so did the groundbreaking of Walden Lake. The Lakeland Ledger reported that Walden Lake would increase the size of Plant City by 50% and that land planning included provisions for green areas, such as golf courses and parks. 

The Walden Lake Golf & Country Club took decades to grow into the massive course it is today. Developers built the first 18 holes in the late ‘70s. Then, in the ‘80s, the second nine holes were built, followed by the last nine in the early ‘90s.

The golf and country club became ingrained in the lives of Walden Lake residents. Bogeys restaurant hosted parties, players took lessons, teenagers worked at the club. 

“Then the pro shop closed. Then no more brunch,” Shelly Orrico says. 

Her family moved to a house on The Hills after her husband, U.S. Army veteran Dan Orrico, retired. It was their dream to live on a golf course. The Orricos joined the club for $4,000 a year. 

“There were golfers,” Shelly says. 

“Then there were gophers,” Philbin says. 

“And gopher turtles,” says Harley Herman, the attorney handling the Walden Lake Community Association’s lawsuit against Visions Golf. 

Residents first filed a class action lawsuit in January 2015, which the WLCA joined. Later, the WLCA submitted its own lawsuit, which was withdrawn after Visions Golf’s motion for dismissal. The WLCA filed a new lawsuit. 

In each lawsuit, it is asserted that Walden Lake’s intent was to be modeled around 36 holes of golf. The suit references a Restrictions and Easement Agreement that was signed in 1993, when Walden Lake Inc. and its affiliate entity, Sun City Center Corp., sold the properties within Walden Lake that comprised the two 18-hole golf courses to Fairways Group LLC.

“All portions of the Golf and Country Club shall continue to be operated and open for use by members during the term of the restriction … Fairways (or successors) shall not attempt to initiate any change in the existing community unit zoning district pertaining to the Golf and Country Club pursuant to the Plant City zoning regulations,” according to the portions of the agreement quoted in the first lawsuit.

“To put more homes on there is full unholy to the plan,” Bob Hunter, WLCA president, said. “It’s taking what 2,300 people bought into and destroying it.”

What the future may bring

From Pacific Ocean views at cliffs near Shanghai to coastal wetlands drenched in a Florida sunset, Ron Garl has seen a lot in his

Ron Garl | Courtesy

40 years as a golf course designer. After all, he’s the one who created the opportunity for those stunning vistas to take play alongside those who read the green.

Garl has designed over 250 golf courses around the world. Although he’s in current email chats with the King of Morocco about a course and says he commutes to the airport the same way people commute to work, the Lakeland-based designer soon may be digging his spikes into something closer to home —  Walden Lake Golf & Country Club. 

Steve Mercer of Visions Golf Inc., the company that owns  Walden Lake Golf & Country Club, first contacted Garl in 2013 to gauge his interest in a renovation if a rezone to develop part of the courses passed.

The plan is to renovate the back nine of The Lakes course, currently open, and the back nine of The Hills course, currently closed. Holes one through nine of The Hills and holes one through three and nine of The Lakes, along with the driving range, would be used in development. Holes four through eight of The Lakes will remain, either converted to a nine-hole executive or practice course. 

“Currently, (Garl) is mainly doing renovations to existing golf courses in the U.S. because there are not too many new golf courses being built these days, and his thoughts on how to make the golf courses easier for the golfer is in line with what I think needs to happen to a lot of the golf courses,” Mercer says. 

If Garl does renovate the courses in Walden Lake, there will be no hidden hazards, plenty of natural elements and the course will sit softly on the land.

“That’s what people enjoy playing, enjoy seeing,” Garl says, fresh off a business trip from Bogota, Colombia. “Strategy is the real key.”

There will also be some new tee boxes, wider fairways and redesigns of some sand traps. 

Of all the places he’s designed, Walden Lake Golf & Country Club has a sentimental value. His wife is from Plant City. Perhaps more intriguing: he designed 18 holes when the courses were first developed. 

“It used to be one of the most exciting places … it was just a vibrant place,” Garl says. “It’s great to see people try to recreate that.”

Contact Amber Jurgensen at [email protected].

 

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