Log in Subscribe

Some University Park Residents Smell a Rat in Golf Club Deal

At Thursday’s special land use meeting, Manatee County Commissioners unanimously approved the creation of a special taxing district that will allow residents of University Park to engage in a process with its developers to purchase the community’s golf club, which the developer has indicated would otherwise be cleared for additional development. While 80 percent of respondents petitioned in favor of moving forward with the process, an unsilent minority say homeowners are being bamboozled.
University Park is an award-winning master-planned community with a 266-acre, Ron Garl-designed golf course that’s rated as 4 stars by Golf Digest. Developed on a former hunting preserve that was once owned by a couple of dozen State Farm Insurance executives, the land was purchased by developer Pat Neal and Austrian-English investor Rolf Pasold in the Ô80s. It is arguably the crown jewel in Neal's enormous development portfolio. The politically-powerful home builder, who was once a state senator, began selling homes there in 1991, and the developers have maintained control of the amenities since, with the option to close, sell, or seek to develop the golf club at their discretion.
Pat Neal’s son John purchased his father’s stake in the development for $4 million in 2007, while Pasold’s heirs control his remaining interest. Last year, the younger Neal told the homeowner association that he and his partners were no longer interested in maintaining the golf club and would sell or develop the property unless residents wanted to purchase it. The University Park Homeowner Association's board, which the developers control, began informing residents that they were in negotiations to buy the property and would put forth a petition to form a recreation district that would issue bonds to fund the purchase, which would then be paid for by annual assessments on all homeowners, estimated to be between $1,000 and $1,900.
In February, the petition drive garnered qualified signatures from 1,180 of 1,584 eligible residents, which suggested that about 80 percent of homeowners who are registered to vote were in favor of moving forward. There are precedents for such purchases, and since University Park’s identity is inextricably linked to its course and people are typically skeptical of new development that could change the character of their community, such enthusiasm wouldn’t seem out of the norm. However, once you hear some of the complaints from those opposed to the deal, many of whom say they only became aware of troubling details after the petition, it's easy to question whether it passes the smell test.
Many residents who voiced opposition to the RD at Thursday’s meeting said they were not, in fact, opposed to purchasing the land. It’s just the price, process, and terms of the arrangement that have them up in arms. Neal wants $16.75 million for the golf course, clubhouse, amenities, and associated lands. The purchase price is supported by an appraisal of the golf club that cites a market value of $13.5 million. However, that appraisal was done by a firm based in Colorado and an appraiser who is not certified to conduct appraisals in Florida.
Meanwhile, an appraisal review attained by an opposition group called UP Concerned Residents, using local, State-Certified General Real Estate Appraiser Roger Hettema, who holds an MAI designation, cited "numerous errors, inconsistencies, and misstatements of facts in the final appraisal." Hettema notes significant errors in the values, location and sale prices of other Florida courses used to come to that figure. A competing appraisal secured by the group puts the value at a mere $6.2 million.
The opposition group claims that in the run-up to the petition, residents were strong-armed into signing in favor of the RD by being asked to sign in front of fellow residents while being told that Neal could otherwise build huge condo towers (which the land is not zoned for) and had reservations pacified by being assured that the petition itself or even the RD doesn’t authorize the purchase and that any bonding to do so would have to be done by referendum. This part is true, however, the group says that it inflates the supposed support that was lauded Thursday as a community that overwhelmingly supported the action as a means to control its own destiny–a phrase uttered at least a dozen times by the applicant's representatives and county commissioners.
The group further points out that two of the three HOA board members who are negotiating with Neal were appointed by the developer and that the planning group established to facilitate the process is dominated by golfers when, in fact, only around 20 percent of residents belong to the golf club. They say that the nearly $100,000 spent from the homeowner association review on due diligence (including $28,500 for the appraisal) violates their homeowner association's covenants, conditions, and restrictions, which require such expenditures to be approved by referendum.
So, it seems that you have a board that is controlled by the developer authorizing payment by the homeowners association for a single, dubious appraisal by an out-of-state firm selected by the person they are ostensibly negotiating with and then driving an effort to form a special tax district that could see homeowners paying around two and a half times what appears to be the fair market value of the land, against the threat of losing their golf-course views and serene green spaces to greater density and all the headaches that come with it. As such, it’s no surprise that homeowners who’ve peeled back the onion a bit don’t like what they see.
Commissioners were reminded by their attorney on Thursday that they weren’t voting on a land purchase or anything other than the formation of a special district, but it didn’t seem to matter. The enthusiasm for the issue and dismissive treatment of the opposition was similar to when the board recently voted to use taxpayer money to purchase land on the Braden River owned by Pat Neal for a very questionable price they themselves helped to inflate by way of a comp plan amendment after a similar tax-the-surrounding-residents scheme ripped the community in two. The commissioners wanted University Park residents to take control of their destiny, a less than comforting platitude to residents concerned that it was merely step one in a process that would instead tie them to the long-term costs of financing and then maintaining into perpetuity an amenity that would have declining value.
Florida's favorite economist for hire, Hank Fishkind–an expensive consultant known for arriving at whatever conclusion the party that hires him is looking to validate–was trotted out by the applicant, but when commissioners asked him to weigh in as the expert on economic values, Fishkind hemmed and hawed about the difficulty of appraising golf courses, and the reality that it was determined by the whims of a willing buyer and a willing seller. Commissioner Betsy Benac echoed Fishkind in telling opponents that the bottom line was that regardless of appraisals when you have a willing buyer and willing seller, that's the deal that's going to be made.

The real bottom line is that golf is a dying sport and that courses throughout the country are closing at a rate of more than two per week, as enthusiasts who die off simply aren't being replaced by younger ones who prefer a video game controller to a 9 iron. Florida has a bit of a higher horizon only because a concentration of retirees who play avidly continue to move here for their golden years. But we also have an over-saturated supply of clubs, leading to the proliferation of semi-public courses, in which private clubs are seeking revenue from both due-paying members and pay-per-play guests. This, together with the generational gap continuing to reduce the retirement demographic's numbers, will put extreme pressure on the Florida golf course industry in another generation, at most. At that time, our golf courses will be raised to make way for additional housing anyway.
For these reasons, opponents have called the potential golf club purchase a black box. They cite the engineering report–also paid for from reserves as part of due diligence–and its conclusions that while most structures are in "generally good condition," they exhibit the expected wear and effects of deferred maintenance of buildings that are nearly three decades old, things like leaky roofs, termite damage, etc. They worry that they will inherit not only these issues but additional expenses, such as an approximate $3 million for a new irrigation system, leading to regular and expensive additional assessments that many of the fixed-income retirees will not want, and potential property buyers will steer clear of, driving down property values.
Residents all but begged commissioners to vote against the RD, at least for now, and take a look at how the process had been conducted, to perhaps slow the train before it got all the way out of the station. No dice. Next will be a special election in September for homeowners to select a recreation district board–which could vote against the deal or renegotiate it. Even then, the $24 million in bonding (the purchase price plus reserves and future costs) will have to go to referendum. However, opponents fear that if the process continues to move quickly and be controlled by those with an interest in an outcome favored by the developers, they will get the short end of the stick.
That seems to hinge on how many residents get wise to the details in the coming weeks and whether they mind overpaying if Neal can convince them it’s a situation in which they either meet his price–valid or not–or accept whatever development he can manage to get approved in a rezone from a county commission that has historically loved any application with his family’s name on it. That didn’t quite work in Braden Woods, though the family still got its price, just from all of us rather than only those who live nearby. A similar tactic was also used when the county paid a premium price for the land that would become Neal Preserve against the threat of a hotel and possible casino at the gateway to Anna Maria Island. Call it the mob-method of real estate:Nice place you got here, it’d be a shame if someone came along and built a bunch of unwanted houses on it. Capiche?
Dennis "Mitch" Maley is a featured columnist and editor for The Bradenton Times. He is also the author of several works of fiction. His latest book, Sacred Hearts, is currently available in the Amazon Kindle store (click here). His other books can be found here.


No comments on this item

Only paid subscribers can comment
Please log in to comment by clicking here.