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Plant City Observer Friday, Jun. 17, 2016 2 years ago

Decision delayed on Walden Lake rezoning recommendation

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The planning board has not set a date for another meeting, in which it will make a decision on the fate of the Walden Lake golf course.

By Dave Nicholson

The City of Plant City planning board during its meeting Thursday, June 16, decided to wait on making a recommendation to the City Commission on the rezoning of a shuttered Walden Lake golf course.  

Residents and experts spent more than four hours discussing the proposed rezoning at the meeting in the John R. Trinkle Center. The rezoning would allow for the development of 326 homes on 127 acres of the golf course.

Visions Golf LLC and its supporters said development was the only way to raise the millions needed to reverse years of decline of what was once a thriving golf and country club. Profits from the development would go to revitalizing what was left of the golf course and the clubhouse.

Opponents said Visions Golf's financial problems are the result of mismanagement, and the company is all too willing to sacrifice golf to boost profits.

Chairwoman Bonnie Carr said the board didn't want to rush to judgement of a rezoning that both sides agree will shape the future of the city's largest subdivision.

She said the board would announce a time based on when all its members would be available. As of Friday, June 17, no date had been established.

City planning staff members have recommended approval, saying the design and buffers would make the development compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.

“That doesn't appear to be a problem with you to the compatibility with the rest of Walden Lake?” Planning board member Art Wood asked Planning and Zoning Director Mark Hudson about replacing green space with homes, including many multi-family homes. 

Supporters and opponents could only agree that the Walden Lake Golf and Country Club was in dire condition.

“Visions Golf has systematically ruined our community,” said Shelly Orrico, who lives on the closed course.

She and others said Visions bought the golf and country club nearly 10 years ago with an eye toward development and a quick profit.

But Visions Golf Managing Partner Steve Mercer said Visions Golf set out to operate just a golf and country club, and the company invested $1 million in improvements in 2008. When Walden Lake was squeezed by a number of factors, including the economic bust in 2009, a dramatic drop in country club memberships and fewer rounds of golf played, “everything started to go south,” Mercer said.

He said the company has done its best and had no choice when it closed The Hills course in 2013.

Karen Olson, a former community association board member and 20 year resident, said she's watched the decline and backs Visions Golf's plan.

“Visions Golf needs millions. No one else is going to invest in saving this community asset,” Olson said.

World-renown golf course designer Ron Garl, who will help redesign the course if the rezoning is approved, said many courses are feeling a pinch as participation in the sport declines.

“Forty percent of the golf courses in the state of Florida are in serious financial trouble,” he said.

Garl said should Visions Golf fold, “it's going to greatly affect all the homes in Walden Lake, not just on the golf course.”

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