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On idled Florida golf courses, nature stages a comeback

Fight over one Miami course illustrates how valuable this green space has become


Someday, somebody will do an in-depth study of Florida’s long and tangled relationship with golf.

I can’t do it. I’m not qualified. I’ve never played on a course that didn’t have a windmill on it.

Some Florida communities owe their very existence to golf. Sarasota is one. The Villages is another. The Naples area is so linked to the links, it currently boasts the most golf courses per capita in the nation.

The most golf-centric movie ever made, “Caddyshack,” was mostly filmed in Davie and Boca Raton. One of the best lines in one of the best movies about Florida, “Sunshine State,” comes when a gloating developer played by Alan King refers to golf courses as “nature on a leash.”

Unfortunately, golf course development has wiped out quite a lot of Florida’s nature, except for the gators lurking in the water hazards. They converted wild swamps, forests and lakes into neatly manicured, pesticide-controlled landscapes that suck up lots of water from the ground and spew lots of fertilizer in their runoff.

This state grew so golf-crazy that in 2011, some lawmakers wanted Jack Nicklaus to take over part of our award-winning state park system. Fortunately, lots of people (including Arnold Palmer) mocked the idea. It ended up being deep-sixed like a drive from the tee that lands in the Mariana Trench.

Lately, though, golf has fallen on hard times, in part because of competition from such new sports as pickleball. Two years ago, Golfweek reported that “since 2006 more courses have closed than have opened every year, most the victim of overbuilding which preceded the burst of the housing bubble.”

The trend now is toward new housing being built on failed golf courses as developers try to make a little green from the idled greens. But in some places where golf has given up the ghost, something really interesting has happened:

Nature broke free of its leash.

Courses have become overgrown with all the vegetation the maintenance crew once cut back, and the wildlife that fled from the duffers has returned.

The best example of this is a golf course in the Miami area known as Calusa. It’s become transformed into an unlikely wildlife refuge in that most urban of counties.

Then a big-money developer showed up with plans to build houses on the old course. What followed was a wild fight that wound up going all the way to the Florida Supreme Court. To everyone’s surprise, the developers lost.

“This is a huge win and it’s good for nature,” said Amanda Prieto, leader of the Save Calusa organization.  She called the way it all played out “the epitome of Florida.”

Rum versus rookery

Florida has seen plenty of David-versus-Goliath development battles, but the giants don’t get much bigger than the one who wanted to wipe out the Calusa course.

Facundo L. Bacardi has been chairman of the board of Bacardi Limited — the rum company that also makes vodka, tequila, gin and whiskey — since 2005. He happens to be the great-great grandson of the company founder. He’s also an investor in other concerns, including Florida real estate.

In 2003 his St. Andrews Holdings bought the 168-acre Calusa golf course for $2.7 million. That fairly low price made sense because the land was under a 1968 covenant that required it to remain a golf course for 99 years, Prieto said.

Then he worked to lift the covenant’s restrictions so he could turn it into something other than what it was.

Meanwhile, the course slid into neglect, especially after Hurricane Katrina demolished the clubhouse, according to a timeline Prieto provided me. Bacardi closed the course in 2011.

In the 13 years since then, without the golfers out there chasing birdies, real birdies such as snowy egrets returned to the course. Some were imperiled species, such as burrowing owls. Tricolored herons, a threatened species, even built nests on the property.

“Urban rookeries are really rare,” said Brian Rapoza, vice president of the Tropical Audubon Society. “Most wading birds that visit urban areas are not there to nest.”

Prieto moved into the neighborhood in 2018. She soon noticed the real-life “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” show happening near her home.

“It’s just wide-open green space,” she said. “That land was never meant to be built on.”

But by then, Bacardi had begun working with GL Homes on replacing that habitat with houses.

“No one builds the Florida Lifestyle like GL Homes,” the company boasts on its website. But what if your idea of the “Florida Lifestyle” involves making room for Florida wildlife?

Not-so-great ideas

Calusa isn’t in Miami proper. It’s not the place to see “Miami Vice” filming locations or South Beach’s Art Deco hotels.

It’s part of the community of Kendall, which a Florida International University report described as “a vast, sprawling unincorporated area in the southwest environs of Miami-Dade County that has undergone explosive growth.”

That means the idea of adding a lot more development to replace what is now a rare piece of open space struck some people as wrong. Traffic is already a nightmare and the closest elementary school is full. Allowing even more people in would add to the congestion.

But we don’t have a growth management system in Florida anymore, not since then-Gov. Rick “I Hate Socialism and Also Social Security” Scott dismantled it all. Now it seems like the Legislature has the system set up so every developer gets the go-ahead to do whatever they want.

Meanwhile, GL Homes sent its people around the neighborhood to talk with residents and head off any opposition, said senior vice president Dick Norwalk, who bears a distinct resemblance to Ted Knight’s character in “Caddyshack.”

“We spent about two years trying to work out what would be the community’s wishes about traffic issues, community issues and so forth,” Norwalk told me.

Finally, in February 2021 the developers filed a request for a county zoning change. Instead of a golf course classified as “parks and recreation,” they wanted to switch to a zoning that would allow the construction of 550 single family homes.

The developers made two mistakes: First, they submitted a wildlife survey for the property that incorrectly claimed it had no significant wildlife habitat, particularly nesting tricolored herons.

“They said there were no wading birds within 6 miles,” Prieto told me.

Second, they failed to take seriously people like Prieto who knew better. By November 2021, they were having to backpedal in the face of overwhelming evidence of wildlife use.

Norwalk didn’t address those flaws directly when I talked to him, but he did say, “Things we thought would be great ideas turned out not to be great ideas.”

They had the votes but…

Prieto, who hails from Canada, used to teach college courses in academic research. That means she knows how to track stuff down.

She didn’t know the names of the birds she saw, for instance, but she found people who did. She persuaded them to come out to see the wildlife.

They shot lots of photos of them, which Prieto posted on the Save Calusa website until it carried more nature pictures than the average issue of “National Geographic.” The photos disproved the report from the developers ‘consultants. (Prieto suspects the consultants purposely did their survey in December, when they knew no nesting would be happening)

She persuaded the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to list the Calusa tricolored heron rookery on their website of nesting locations. That lent her crusade some official legitimacy.

That led Mayor Daniella Levine Cava to order Miami’s Department of Environmental Resources Management to conduct thorough field studies. Sure enough, they documented the heron nesting.

Meanwhile. Prieto persuaded neighbors to put up acoustic monitors. Those revealed that the property had also attracted bonneted bats, an endangered species.

Prieto’s crusade also attracted an attorney named David Winker who was willing to work on the case pro bono. He said he and Prieto knew this would likely be unwinnable, he told me, but they wanted to “make enough noise so they give us a 20-acre park.”

But neither Bacardi nor GL Homes bothered to negotiate with Save Calusa.

“It was just jammed down our throats,” Winker told me.

Norwalk told me they failed to do so because they’d “not been in that kind of a mood.” They had previously negotiated with other residents and didn’t see t the need to do it again. But Prieto figures the reason was more of about power.

“They totally thought they had all the votes they needed,” she said.

They were right – but also very wrong.

The tiny flaw

Save Calusa supporters sent more than 5,000 letters to county officials ahead of the rezoning vote. They packed the commission chambers. They even drew support from local celebrity Ron Magill of the county’s Zoo Miami.

“You can buy consultants, but you can’t buy wildlife once it’s dead,” he told his bosses on the county commission before they cut off his microphone.

Despite that, the public turnout, and the confirmed presence of imperiled animals, the Miami-Dade commissioners voted for what the developers wanted.

But they made one small mistake, one that Prieto had warned them about.

Remember her background in research? In poring over development rules, she’d spotted a tiny flaw. It turned out to be as important as that 2-meter thermal exhaust port on the Death Star. (As the Jedi golfer once said: “May the Fore be with you.”)

“They didn’t do the meeting notice properly,” she told me.

In her one-minute speech – all the time she was allowed by the county – she told them they’d failed to properly publish a newspaper notice to inform the public about the meeting. County officials waved away her complaint in their race to say yes.

But it turned out she knew what she was talking about.

Winker challenged the rezoning vote based on the lack of public notice. Save Calusa lost at the district court level, but then won at the appeals court. The Florida Supreme Court looked at taking up the case, but last week they turned it down.

“That means our meeting didn’t count,” Norwalk admitted, sounding like someone who’d somehow lipped out what should have been a gimme putt.

Save Calusa had won, at least for now. They’d aced it, to use a golf term. But the battle over the makeshift refuge is far from over.

“They’re 100 percent going to try again,” Prieto said. “But now it’s an election year.” What had once seemed to be a smooth fairway for their plans is now likely to be rough.

Three years since the initial application, traffic has become even worse in the area, she pointed out. Plus, the blatant falsity of their consultants’ report has hurt their public credibility, she said.

I asked Norwalk if his side would indeed be back for a second try. He said yes, but he promised to re-do the studies for the development.

“I don’t know if we have to do that, but it’s an opportunity to rethink a few things,” he told me.

Personally, I think every developer in Florida should rethink trying to build houses on old golf courses where real eagles live.

I called around but nobody could tell me how many more Calusas there might be around Florida now. I bet there are a few.

Our current “leaders” seem pretty hostile to everything involving the environment except for buying land. I’d propose we inventory these abandoned courses and check the wildlife population there. Then we can add some of them to our Florida Forever purchase list.

If we can preserve at least some of what nature has reclaimed, I’d call that a Grand Slam.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.


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