Despite residents' concerns, ImperiaLakes Golf Course rezoning approved by Polk planning board

Article Courtesy of  The Ledger

By Maya Lora    

Published June 6, 2021


POLK COUNTY — The Polk County Planning Commission approved a zoning change for the ImperiaLakes Golf Course, overruling protests from local residents.

On Wednesday, the Polk County Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend the Board of County Commissioners approve RL-1 zoning for the ImperiaLakes Golf Course in Mulberry. The zoning, which provides the lowest density possible for residential properties, would allow a future owner or developer to build one home per acre on the golf course, totaling 188 lots.

Nearly 20 local residents and representatives from surrounding homeowners associations spoke against the approval at the meeting. They brought up a myriad of concerns, including traffic, issues with water drainage, threats to local wildlife and changing the character of the neighborhoods surrounding the golf course.

But the biggest concern residents expressed was that despite a request for just 188 homes, a potential development on the golf course land would expand into something much denser than the current proposal.

"As a community, we've been lied to. And we don't want this. We ask you, please, do not allow this to go through," resident Aaron Puffer said. "Once this goes through, it's done. It's over. It's a slippery slope. We do not want this."


Despite initial approval for 188 homes, according to a presentation from county planning staff the maximum amount of homes that could go up on the property is 876. While RL-1 zoning allows just one home per acre, a future owner or developer would have access multiple processes that could allow for an increase in density of up to five units per acre. There are, however, 16 acres of wetlands that can only host one lot per acre no matter what other density adjustments are made.

Additionally, golf course owner John Lennon has said that 40 acres of the property are protected under a conservation easement and will not be developed. But Chanda Bennett, comprehensive planning administrator for Polk County, said the county would not get involved in the private matter of enforcing such building restrictions, so those acres were calculated into the total amount of potential homes.

While under two of the available processes a developer would have to go before the Planning Commission for density increase approval — and under one of those methods, they'd also have to go before the Board of County Commissioners — two alternate paths exist where a developer would only have to go through county staff approvals, bypassing a public hearing.

'Slippery slope': Residents raise concerns

In a meeting that at times got tense and even emotional, several residents spoke on issues they have with opening the golf course up to residential development and pleaded with commissioners to recommend against the proposal.

Some brought up local wildlife on the golf course, which they fear would be displaced to make room for residential development.

Resident Gerry DeRidder said he has seen several species in his own backyard, including owls, doves, black snakes, turtles, armadillos, possums, bobcats and even a Florida panther.

He and other residents pushed against the rezoning, preferring that the golf course at least be left as open green space for wildlife and recreational enjoyment.

"Once this is decided, it is forever, at least my forever. It's certainly going to be generational if we don't take a look at this in another point of view, as having open space," DeRidder told commissioners.

Traffic issues were also raised. Because other developments around the golf course are private with private roads, access to a potential golf course development would be limited, which residents said would further complicate already congested streets.

Additionally, residents said the streets are dangerous, with some people speeding down ImperiaLakes Boulevard at well over the speed limit. And if there's ever an accident or train passing over the railroad tracks, the street turns into a "parking lot."

Donnie Arbeau, president of the ImperiaLakes Estates Homeowners Association, said after the meeting that he felt nobody properly addressed the traffic issues, especially if the density is eventually increased to the potential 876 homes.

"We really got the impression that it didn't matter what we were going to tell them, this thing was going to get approved," Arbeau said. "It seems like the county is just pro-development and anything to increase that tax base, that's what we're going to approve."

Residents also spoke about flooding and drainage issues, showing the commission photos of their properties and the golf course filled with standing water after showers and rainstorms.

Some residents begged the commission to reconsider the property for recreational use, such as a park, to maintain the open green space many of the residents had purchased their properties to have visual access to. They fear their property values will decrease if homes go up instead, despite the fact that the golf course currently sits in disarray, a fact that the applicant ECON South LLC and Lennon freely admit.

"What my biggest concern is maybe a lack of vision for what this space can be. There are not very many places anymore for children to run and play," Keira Ehler said, before tearing up and taking a moment to compose herself. "There is so much potential for this area to be developed into a park, to be developed into not just our community but a greater community-wide park."

Members of the Planning Commission pointed out they don't have the authority to just turn a parcel into a public park. Rather, they could only consider the proposal in front of them.

Several residents, however, did complain the golf course had fallen apart over the years. Some said they had offered to help Lennon with upkeep but been turned down or received no recognition for work they did on their own. The golf course and clubhouse of their teenage years is gone, and they blame Lennon.

In early May, Lennon said that nobody in the community supports the golf course anymore.

"All they do is vandalize it. Why would I continue to put money into something that the people here do not support?" Lennon said. "Nobody wants a golf course. We've tried that route. Nobody really wants to do anything in this area other than build houses because you get no support."

The Polk County Planning Commission recommended the Board of County Commissioners approve the rezoning of ImperiaLakes at its August meeting.

Commission would rather see homes

The Planning Commission unanimously agreed to recommend the Board of County Commissioners approve the development when they hear the case on Aug. 3.

Commissioners said that as far as compatibility goes, since the proposal is for single-family residential lots and is surrounded by single-family residential, the approval seemed clear.

Plus, as Bennett pointed out in her presentation to commissioners, the county does not have guidelines in place on how to handle golf course conversion, leaving them to rely on compatibility assessment and resident input. County staff had recommended approval to the Planning Commission.

"We're only here to determine if they should be allowed to have a comprehensive plan amendment," Commissioner Rennie Heath said. "All the concerns that the residents have will be somewhat addressed if they move forward with this. But I think what I've heard today from the applicant is they've done everything possible to try to get this guy some help from a financial standpoint and he can't do much without a land use."

Heath said he wasn't concentrating on the "traffic issues, and the drainage issues and the school issues because that's not what we're here for today."

Heath's comments provoked one resident in the audience to ask whether residents could sue the Planning Commission if more homes are built.

"I think that we need to find lawyers," she said as she walked out.
The Polk County Planning Commission recommended the Board of County Commissioners approve the rezoning of ImperiaLakes at its August meeting.

Vice Chair Matthew Cain said rezoning the golf course was more appealing than the alternative: allow the golf course to continue to sit, untouched and unmaintained.

"Personally, I'd rather see somebody have a chance to do something, rather than have it sit there and be what's going to be a rat-infested weed pile in just a short order," Cain said. "This is not unique to ImperiaLakes; there are failed golf courses all over southeast Polk County. Trying to find a best fit use for these types of properties I think is best for the county."

Before casting his vote, Commissioner Sean Harper recommended the neighboring homeowners associations — there are 17, including a main HOA — or residents get together and present an offer to Lennon to purchase the golf course ahead of the next step in the approval process.

The Board of County Commissioners will next decide whether to pass the request along to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, where the state will have 30 days to review the proposal and submit any concerns or potential impacts.

If the board chooses not to transmit the application, the proposal dies. If the board does transmit the proposal, it will return before the Board of County Commissioners on Oct. 5 for an adoption hearing, where it will decide whether to rezone the parcel.

Both of those upcoming meetings are also public hearings.

Arbeau said he and the others fighting the proposal aim to put together at least 1,500 signatures to present to the board for the August meeting. He said the petition currently has between 400 and 450 signatures.

"I can tell you that everyone I spoke with (after the meeting) all said the same thing: 'The committee already decided to approve that rezone before the ink on the paperwork was dry," Arbeau said in an email.