Deal to save Florida golf course nixed after residents faced heavy assessment

Article Courtesy of  GOLFWEEK

By Tim Schmitt

Published January 25, 2024


NAPLES – Collier commissioners have rejected a proposed settlement that could have saved the Riviera Golf Course in East Naples from development.

The decision followed a straw poll of the surrounding community, which showed an overwhelming majority of its residents didn't support the terms of the potential compromise.

In the opinion poll, residents of Riviera Golf Estates were asked whether they supported setting up a special district to purchase and maintain the closed golf course as passive, open recreational land, and funding it through annual assessments divided among the lot owners in the community, based on their benefits.

The county sent out 690 surveys. Of the 475 who answered it, 415 – or more than 87% – responded "no."

After hearing the results at a county commission meeting earlier this month, Commissioner Dan Kowal, who represents the area, said it didn't make sense to move forward with the settlement based on the "voice of the people." He motioned to "move on," and to not consider creating a special taxing district.

Commissioner Burt Saunders seconded the motion to reject the offer – and it passed unanimously.

The offer came out of a mediation hearing last spring, hashed out by lawyers for the county and the developer, with input from representatives of the Riviera Golf Estates homeowners association.

It could have resolved a $14 million property rights claim, prevented a lawsuit – and put a stop to development.

Nearly a year ago, the owners of the golf course property filed a claim under Florida's Bert Harris property rights act.

La Minnesota Riviera LLC applied to build houses on the 94-acre site, but in their claim, they alleged they'd been "inordinately burdened" by the county's rules for rezoning a golf course.

Naples land use attorney Rich Yovanovich, who represents the developers, declined to comment about the failed settlement, or about his client's next steps.

Residents saw settlement as unfair

In explaining why most residents didn't support the proposal, Tricia Campbell, president of the Riviera Golf Estates Homeowners Association, told the county commission they felt it unfair. Under the agreement, the county would have purchased the property for $5.8 million, but the homeowners would have been required to pay the county back in full, and to cover maintenance and repairs, through annual assessments levied by the special district.

Over 10 years, a consultant hired by the county proposed annual assessments ranging from a high of $2,602.13 to a low of $1,542.77, with owners of single-family homes located on the golf course and in a cul-de-sac paying the most, and owners of mobile homes not fronting the golf course paying the least.

"I want to assure you that our collective negative vote was mainly based on the lack of cost sharing for the settlement and the repairs required to the drainage system, but not necessarily on the proposed concept and structure of the agreement," Campbell told commissioners.

Further, she said, the homeowners association's board believes the vast majority of residents would "respond favorably" to a modified proposal that brings their property acquisition cost down closer to its "appraised value as an undevelopable floodplain and golf course."

In 2018, a majority of residents in the 55-plus community voted to pursue negotiations to purchase the golf course on their own, but at a much lower price of $2.5 million to $3 million. However, it required a super-majority vote based on community covenants, so the effort failed.

In 2022, the homeowners association had a certified appraisal done, with permission from its residents, and it came back at $2 million for the value of the land.

While the settlement offer has been nixed, Campbell said her community views it as the beginning, not the end of a process that will allow the county and homeowners to "forge a collaboration that will assure the proper stewardship of the former golf course property by and for the people who hold it most dear, the senior citizens of our community."

Lawsuit could be next

Now the developers could file a formal Bert Harris lawsuit against the county. If that happens, the county and the developers would have to participate in a mandatory settlement mediation, said Ed Finn, a deputy county manager.

If mediation doesn't result in a mutually agreed upon settlement, the county attorney would then request that La Minnesota bring an offer directly to the county commission, he said.

County Attorney Jeffrey Klatzkow said the ball is back in the property owner's court, and it's difficult to gauge if a suit will be filed.

He pointed out the property owner would have to purchase a couple of the homes in Riviera and knock them down to create an access for the new development. The county, he said, could "purchase those homes to stop that" in a defensive move.

Katie Berkey, an attorney for the homeowners association, implored commissioners to consider alternative options to purchase the golf course in partnership with the residents and their board.

She urged commissioners not to consider any settlement that would circumvent the county's Growth Management Plan, or usual public hearing process, should it allow development to proceed that would be detrimental to residents.

Additionally, she encouraged the county to keep thinking "outside the box" to find a solution that benefits and protects residents.

County to step up code enforcement

While the county worked toward a settlement, residents complained about drainage problems and street flooding, due to a lack of maintenance by the owners, and the county performed emergency repairs to improve the situation, Trinity Scott, head of the county's Transportation Management Services Department, told commissioners.

That took considerable effort by staff, but it did not require a "ton of funds," Finn added.

With the settlement null and void, Commissioner Kowal said the county needs to get back to more actively "monitoring the situation," when it comes to drainage and maintenance, and to get code enforcement involved if necessary to ensure the property owners are doing what they're required to do.

County staff reported there were no longer any active code enforcement cases involving the property.

Scott Soderstrom, a resident of Riviera Golf Estates and a licensed professional engineer, said he believed the property owner's negligence would require a major reconstruction of the land's drainage system, including the replacement of badly deteriorated, poorly functioning pipes. He estimated the cost of repairs at $1 million to "save it for residents and Collier County."

In an email after the commission rejected the settlement, Campbell, who supported it as a creative solution to stop development, said she remained hopeful the property could still be saved, somehow.

"Where it goes from here, I have no clue," she said. "I guess it goes back to the drawing board. We are very hopeful that a reasonable plan will come through to help save our community’s floodplain."