University Park at odds over country club’s fate

Article Courtesy of  the Herald Tribune

By Chris Wille

Published February 27, 2018

The dense old growth forest that hangs over the twisting entrance to University Park and the long drive to the front gate sets the stage for the entire community. That imposing stretch of nature sells a lot of homes, as does the entire lush and very green neighborhood, the pride and joy of the residents.

University Park’s 1,208 acres hold 53 lakes and ponds, a golf course with 27 holes, other green space and only 1,202 homes, about one per acre.

Nancy Phillips once lived in University Park. “Aesthetically, it’s so beautiful and it’s a private community,” she said. A Realtor with Michael Saunders & Co., she sold 15 UP homes last year and 12 the year before. Some homes she’s sold two to three times.

The long winding road up to the gated entrance “eases tensions” and “absolutely” helps close sales, Phillips said.

“Green space in the park is very, very important.”

“The residents I represent,” said John Whyte, president of the homeowners association, “all come back and tell me the reason they buy here, the greatest No. 1 thing here, is the natural beauty. We want to protect that ... have it under our control.”

Protecting natural assets

A private partnership owns 366 acres, land that primarily holds University Park Country Club, but includes some 100 acres of ponds, roads, infrastructure and small parcels. The homeowners do not control that land, and the risk of residential development hangs over the community should the homeowners fail to acquire the acreage. The nationally ranked golf course meanders through homes on both sides of the fairways, and the green space that represents could be forever lost.

Residents want to gain control of the land to preserve the green space and protect their home values and their community’s beauty. That is the undisputed and paramount goal. Yet a controversy has split residents.

A committee of property owners called the University Park Planning Group worked out what they consider the best viable plan for purchasing the land, the creation of a recreation district. A community survey conducted by the UPPG indicated that a vast majority of residents — 85 percent — support the plan to establish the district, which would issue bonds for the land purchase.

“Needless to say, the survey results are extremely positive,” Whyte wrote in an email to residents, “and indicate a clear majority of residents believe the recommendations presented by the Planning Group provide a clear path to a resident-owned and resident-controlled community.”

But some homeowners are battling the idea of buying the country club for what they deem to be an inflated, negotiated price — $16.75 million — and the formation of a government entity with bonding authority through referendums. Other factors underscore their opposition.

“There are a lot of things that really don’t add up about why we should be paying so much money for the golf course,” said Joe Moran, an attorney, University Park resident and spokesman for a group of disgruntled homeowners. “The group that I’m involved with is not opposed to acquiring the golf course at all. We just don’t want to pay too much money for it.”

The costs, the process

John Neal confirmed he wrote a letter that stated he would close the club immediately and develop the land should the negotiated agreement fall through.

“The question which we asked ourselves,” Neal said of the partnership, “and which we then asked John (Whyte) and others is whether or not land seeks its highest and best use. So if the homeowners value their land, they should have the opportunity to buy it. But if they don’t value the land, then it must have a higher use, an alternative use.”

As proposed, the recreation district’s bond issue would total $24 million. That includes $3 million for bond security and capital reserve, and $3.5 million for nongolf course maintenance and improvements. On average, homeowners would pay $99 monthly over the 30-year life of the bond with the exact amount calculated by a home’s market value.

But the district could add to those assessments with future referendums and bond sales, said Moran, the attorney and spokesman for a group of disgruntled homeowners.

Proponents recently began circulating petitions for resident sign-off on the establishment of the district. Those signatures must then be verified by the Manatee County elections superviser before the petitions are forwarded to the Manatee County Commission for approval. Should all that occur, the district would officially exist, and a bond proposal could then be presented to the courts. Upon judicial consent, a referendum would go before the registered voters in University Park.

“We expect it all to be completed by this summer,” Whyte said.

The background

Pat Neal and Rolf Pasold bought the vacant University Park property around 1980 and opened the community in 1991. The partners retained possession and control of the country club and some small parcels of undeveloped land. The community’s governing documents informed home buyers that the club and land could be sold without their consent at any time.

In 2007, John Neal paid his father $4.01 million for his half of that acreage. Pasold’s heirs own the other half. The new partnership changed the country club’s status from private to semi-private, opening the doors to the public and creating a larger revenue stream.

Today, after maintenance and other costs are covered by club membership dues and outside revenues, the country club pumps profits into the Neal-Pasold partnership, Neal said during a roundtable interview with other principals involved in the formation of the district.

Currently, there are 325 golf club members. Tennis and social memberships bring the club ranks to 1,100.

The club’s owners want to either sell or develop the land.

Last spring, the University Park Planning Group, numbering 27 residents, began investigating the options to gaining ownership of the 266-acre golf course and the additional 100 acres. By September — after lengthy research, due diligence, dozens of presentations to residents, information posted on a neighborhood website and handed out via monthly newsletters — a recreationd district emerged as the best mechanism, the group concluded. They found flaws in both equity member ownership and homeowner association purchase. Well-known Orlando economist Hank Fishkind, a frequent consultant to Sarasota and Manatee interests, first suggested the formation of the district.

A switch to club member ownership failed 10 years ago, and spending homeowner association reserves on club acquisition would be too risky, Whyte said.

Currently, Neal controls the HOA with his two appointments to the board of directors. Residents elect the third member. Should this purchase proposal pass, Neal would surrender HOA control more than a decade before it expires as prescribed in community documents.

Should the land purchase fail, Neal stated in a letter that he would develop the property.

Recreation district opponents reject the idea of establishing a government entity that has the ability to place bond referendums before registered voters, thus taxing all property owners should ballot measures pass. They don’t want to pay off any bonds, now or new ones in the future. They say they don’t believe they should pay for a golf course they do not use. Worse, they say, the Planning Group intends to buy the land for millions more than it is worth. They also claim secrecy and a lack of communication surround the entire process, an allegation strongly rejected.

Communication issue

“We have communicated very frequently,” said Whyte. “We have around 2,000 residents. We’ve done our best. ... The majority of the feedback I get from residents is ‘fantastic communication, well done, thank you.’”

Moran disputes the validity of the process. “It wasn’t done right,” he said, calling it misleading with “a lot of flat-out lies.”

Questions went unanswered, requested documents were not disclosed and scare tactics were employed, he added. Planning Group presentations to residents — there were 16 in January alone, attended by 1,200 — were “very, very slanted” in favor of the plan, he said. Another 20 meetings were held in previous months.

“They’re just scaring the homeowners.” Moran said. “All of this is for the benefit of the golfers at the expense of the nongolfers.”

The golf course is not an issue with most homeowners, according to the resident survey. Of the 1,500 residents who responded to the poll, 85 percent stated they were very in favor or somewhat in favor of the district plan.

“We’ve got an astonishingly high level of support,” Whyte said.

“What was important first for us was that we wanted to get control of the land long-term — and this is from homeowners’ point of view. What we want to do is ensure our green space and our natural beauty.”

Moran dismissed the results, saying the outcome was skewed by the “fear factor.”

Point, counterpoint

Recreation district opponents distributed a 10-point statement citing their objections, and the Planning Group issued a point-by-point rebuttal on Feb. 4. On the negotiated purchase price of the club, opponents stated “no golf course in this area has sold for over” $5 million.

But Pelican Pointe in Venice, a similar 1,200-home community with a 27-hole golf course, sold for $16.8 million in 2015, the Planning Group replied. That transaction did not include additional land or a tennis and fitness center, restaurants and more as the negotiated UPCC deal does.

Opponents said the appraised value is inflated and unqualified, adding: Why should we pay more than double (approximately $7 million) the current appraised value for UPCC assets?

A professionally certified, 173-page report lists the “as is” market value of the club at $13.5 million. “We note that the price we have agreed to is significantly lower than all the various professional land appraisals obtained by both parties,” the response continued.

Question of value

Moran, the attorney, expressed doubt about whether the market values of the homes with golf course views would drop if the land were developed.

An estimated 25 percent to 35 percent of those values would be lost with that green space gone. Michael Sisti, a University Park homeowner and district advocate, said, “We validated that those numbers are accurate.”

The chief deputy in the Manatee County Property Appraiser’s office couldn’t cite specifics, but Mark Johns, CFE, did offer this: “In a general sense in most cases an upper-scale golf course community is going to have higher values than one that does not have these type of amenities. Typically our office does place higher land values on sites with golf course frontage, but that varies greatly by the community and the quality and condition of the amenities available.”

While the process has been needlessly contentious, Moran said, the controversy boils down to cost and control. “The best outcome is to get a fair price and have the HOA purchase the land after the bylaws are changed,” he said. “We should pay Neal a fair price. He deserves that.”

Whyte takes a pragmatic view. “They’re nice people,” he said of project critics. “They just have a different opinion. The facts are the same for both sides; they just have a different way of interpreting those facts, and I respect that.”

Everything comes back to nature’s abundance. “When you see the entire community,” Sisti said, “you’ll understand why we are so passionate about this deal.”