261 acres to be protected ‘in perpetuity’
About seven hours after the Jan. 10 special Sarasota City Commission meeting began, the board members unanimously approved the execution of a conservation easement over the entire 261-acre Bobby Jones Golf Club property, which is located at 1000 Circus Blvd.
As Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch’s motion put it — with details provided by City Attorney Robert Fournier — the execution of the agreement with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast will take place after a report documenting the existing conditions of the land has been completed and a legal description of the property has been verified.
“This is a monumental decision we’re making here,” Ahearn-Koch said as her colleagues were voting on the motion that Commissioner Hagen Brody had seconded.
After the record of the 5-0 vote appeared on the video screen in the Commission Chambers at City Hall, Mayor Erik Arroyo told the audience members, “I know many of you have been waiting hours for this.”
Over the course of approximately six hours that day — with the commissioners having taken an hour-long break for lunch — the board members also unanimously agreed to the issuance of $20 million in bonds to pay for renovations at the city’s Bobby Jones Golf Club. Additionally, they approved a $12,513,599.05 contract with QGS Development of Plant City to reconstruct the original 18-hole Donald Ross golf course on the property, plus the creation of a 9-hole adjustable course and a driving range.
Sue Martin, general manager of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, told the commissioners that, if they approved the contract that day, the 18 regulation holes “should open in November,” before the beginning of the 2022-23 tourist season. That is important, she emphasized, because the initial interest payment on the bonds will need to be made in April 2023.
Altogether, city Finance Director Kelly Strickland reported, the interest on the bonds over 15 years will add up to about $3.8 million. According to the ordinance the commissioners approved for the bond sale, the interest must be paid each April 1 and Oct. 1, with payments on the principal due on those dates, as well, beginning Oct. 1 of this year.
The adjustable course at Bobby Jones is expected to be completed in January 2023, Martin continued, and the clubhouse probably will be finished in 2024.
Further, the commissioners awarded a $544,211 design/build contract to Jon F. Swift Inc. of Sarasota for a new 12,000-square-foot clubhouse, a golf cart storage barn, a “starter shack,” restrooms and a driving range development center. However, the decision on whether the clubhouse restaurant will be one or two stories has yet to be determined.
As the backup agenda material pointed out in regard to the conservation easement, discussions about that step began in 2019. Finally, on Feb. 18, 2020, the commissioners directed city staff, including City Attorney Fournier and the other lawyers on his staff, to work on the official agreement with the Conservation Foundation, which is headquartered in Osprey.
Christine Johnson, president of the Foundation, and Commissioner Brody noted during the Jan. 10 meeting that the easement will be “in perpetuity.”
“‘Perpetuity,’ as the auditors on my board remind me all the time, is a very big word that makes them very nervous,” Johnson said.
Yet, she explained, the mission of the Conservation Foundation — noted on its website— is to “protect the land and water in Southwest Florida for the benefit of humans and nature.”
“I think this project is exactly that,” Johnson added of the plans for a nature park at Bobby Jones. The easement over the golf club will benefit the city, Sarasota County and the region, including nature and people, Johnson said.
The property will be a destination for people to be proud of, she continued, and a place where they “can find peace.”
Commissioner Brody also pointed out that the Bobby Jones Golf Club is a watershed, with stormwater from the 6,000 surrounding acres draining through it before reaching Phillippi Creek. Altogether, he said, about 2.6 billion gallons of stormwater flows through the property each year.
In late May 2021, the Governing Board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) unanimously approved the addition of a Bobby Jones Golf Club water quality project to the District’s 2022 fiscal year Cooperative Funding Initiative grants list. As a result of that action, the City of Sarasota will receive $1,511,535 for construction of an 18-acre treatment wetlands system on the property.
Among the 30 speakers who addressed the commissioners on Jan. 10, Edith Kaplan, who lives in a neighborhood near the golf club, talked of the measures that President Theodore Roosevelt took to protect “approximately 230 million acres” of the United States while he was in office.
“Today,” she told the board members, “my friends and I are asking you to conserve a mere 261 acres of land for the welfare and well being of the present and future residents of our beautiful city.”
Kaplan added, “I invite you to think about the legacy you will create and how your descendants and the community you inhabit will regard you from this day forward.”
Details of the conservation easement
At the outset of the Jan. 10 discussion about the conservation easement, City Attorney Robert Fournier explained that, with the easement in place, the city would retain ownership of the golf club, but the easement would “permanently limit or restrict the use of the land …”
Under the terms of such an agreement, he added, the property owner usually retains the right to pursue certain specific uses of the land without diminishing or reducing the conservation values — such as open space and habitat for wildlife.
“This is a big commitment for the city and you,” Commissioner Brody told Johnson of the Conservation Foundation.
“It is a big, big deal,” she concurred.
When Brody asked about the types of uses the city could make of the land with the easement on it, Johnson cited Section V. (F) of the draft document. Among the allowable uses would be outdoor sports facilities, such as a disc golf course, pickleball courts and lawn bowling; nature and recreational trails and a wetlands boardwalk; parking areas; and a canoe/kayak launch and a storage facility.
When Brody asked about the potential of a softball field, she told him that would be allowed, as well. However, she did point out that the easement calls for no more than 25.8 acres of impervious development on the entire site. Already, she said, 15.5 acres of impervious construction is present.
Still, Johnson noted, pervious trails and parking areas could be created, to balance out other new construction that would be impervious.
The city commissioners also agreed unanimously to forge a fundraising partnership with the Foundation. A draft of the terms calls for the nonprofit to design a professional campaign, host the applicable webpage, coordinate marketing of the campaign and provide access to its “extensive donor network,” as explained on the agenda request item. Further, the Foundation will act as the fiscal agent by accepting and accounting for donations and grants.
The plans for the nature park on the property should win attention from many other foundations, as well as the state, City Manager Marlon Brown pointed out.
The formal vote on the agenda item directed the City Attorney’s Office to complete the draft of the fundraising agreement with the Conservation Foundation and bring the document back to the commissioners for final approval.
When the nature park has been completed, Brody said, “I think it’s going to be better” than the Celery Fields, which has become an internationally known bird-watching area in the eastern part of the county.
Sarasota County created the Celery Fields as a stormwater project decades ago.
The golf course plans
During opening remarks about the golf course restoration project, Martin, general manager of the Parks and Recreation Department, noted that, in early 2015, a study committee was appointed to consider the future of the municipal course. Then, in 2017, the City Commission agreed to hire consultant Richard Mandell, whose eponymous firm is located in Pinehurst, N.C.
In 2019, the City Commission approved Mandell’s first set of plans, Martin continued, before voting on the revisions in 2020 to include the nature park.
Altogether, three firms bid on the restoration project, she added.
A document in the backup agenda material shows the other two were from Landirr Inc. of Sanford ($14,135,351.85) and Wadsworth Golf Construction of Plainfield, Ill. ($13,685,487).
During that part of the day’s discussions, Commissioner Brody talked of his desire to see all of the golf club projects, including the clubhouse, underway at the same time, to minimize disruption to members of the public who will use the facilities.
A trailer will function as the clubhouse until the latter has been completed, City Manager Brown explained. “That is common when golf courses are under construction.”
Nonetheless, Brown said, “It’s not out of the question that [Jon F. Swift’s workers] could finish [the clubhouse] much earlier [than 2024].”
When Brody asked golf architect Mandell whether he has faith in the ability of QGS Development to complete the golf course project as designed, Mandell replied that he had undertaken due diligence on the company, including talking with representatives of golf courses on which QGS had worked. “Everybody gave them a good reference,” Mandell said, “so I feel very comfortable with them. I’ve known them for a long time, as well.”
Brody did express concerns about the potential for “change orders” — formal requests for commission approval for the allocation of additional funds for a construction project underway, as a result of problems that the contractor has encountered.
Mandell will be overseeing the work and ensuring that all of the infrastructure “is within the dollar amounts that have been quoted,” Brown responded.
His construction specifications total about 215 pages, Mandell told the commissioners, citing examples of those details, such as how to excavate the sand bunkers. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room. … That’s what my 30 years of experience has brought to the table for the City of Sarasota,” he said.
In response to questions from Commissioner Ahearn-Koch, Mandell explained that he had used the drawings of the original Donald Ross course to make certain that QGS “will be building, faithfully, [a restoration of the famed golf course architect’s design].” Two elements will be different, Mandell continued. “There were … very few water bodies in 1926 [when the course opened] and very few trees.”
Further, Mandell said, the restoration will correct the drainage problems that were an ongoing concern on the southern portion of the golf course, which originally was built below the 100-year floodplain. Those drainage problems, he noted, were one reason “why the golf course struggled financially.”
“It’s going to continue to lose money,” Mayor Arroyo pointed out, referring to projections provided to the city commissioners, “and we have no plan for that.”
Estimates show the deficit would run about $1 million a year, he said.
Commissioner Liz Alpert disputed that, saying that after the city has paid off the bonds, the golf course should make money.
During the discussion, Commissioner Ahearn-Koch did ask for more information about alternatives that Mandell had provided the board members among his recommendations.
Among them, a new 7-foot-wide concrete walking path would cost $336,142.40, while other walking path connections were put at $11,943.60.
Of the latter, Mandell said, his goal is to try to preserve some of the old cart path, “to save money.”
“Every dollar that we save through getting a grant,” or a state or federal appropriation, City Manager Brown pointed out, could be used to pay for one or more of those alternates as construction is underway.
Not ‘a destination restaurant’
In discussing plans for the new clubhouse, Martin of Parks and Recreation and Justin Williams, vice president and project manager of Jon F. Swift, talked of the fact that the new restaurant would be smaller. Instead of being able to accommodate approximately 120 people, Martin said, it probably would have table service for 80, including persons dining on a covered outdoor patio. In fact, she continued, the restaurant might end up with a total of 50 seats.
During community outreach efforts focused on the design, Martin added, people told city staff that they really just needed space to get a cold drink and sandwiches. “It doesn’t need to be a destination restaurant.”
“I was hoping it was going to be a destination-type restaurant,” Commissioner Alpert responded.
“We don’t call it a ‘destination restaurant,’” City Manager Brown replied, “but the public would be able to go out there.” The patio will look out over the golf course and the nature park, he noted.
The new marketing manager the city just hired will market the golf course, the park and the restaurant, Brown pointed out.
“It was my understanding,” Commissioner Ahearn-Koch said, from her attendance at community workshops conducted on the future of Bobby Jones, that golfers expressed no need for “a fancy restaurant.”
Even though the restaurant that was open at the club could seat up to 150, Martin explained, it was rare for “more than a handful of people” to be in there at one time. She did not want to give the eventual operator of the new restaurant “that false sense of security” that the facility would bring in “large amounts of revenue,” she said.
“I get that,” Alpert told Martin. Nonetheless, Alpert said she hopes the restaurant will prove to be a draw, not only for golfers and users of the park but also for residents of the surrounding neighborhoods and other parts of the community.
Perhaps the design could accommodate ways to expand the seating, Alpert suggested.
“We’ll definitely look into that,” Martin responded.
Discussion also ensued about the fact that the early plans call for the restaurant to be built on the ground level and connected to the new golf cart barn by a breezeway. Mayor Arroyo and Vice Mayor Kyle Battie joined Alpert in expressing a desire for a second-floor restaurant, so diners would have a better view of the grounds.
“Bobby Jones is a beautiful property,” Arroyo emphasized.
Fawley Bryant Architecture of Sarasota, which designed the facilities, is partnering with Jon F. Swift on that part of the overall project, Williams of the construction firm reminded the commissioners.