‘Wait and see’ stance adopted by County Commission in regard to potential purchase of former Gulf Gate Golf Course property

Public Works director talks of owner’s demand for higher price than appraisals, as well as soil contamination concerns

This graphic shows the former Gulf Gate Executive Golf Course outlined in purple. Image courtesy Property Appraiser Bill First

While recently acknowledging “a lot of merit” to a potential water quality initiative involving the approximately 49-acre site of the former Gulf Gate Executive Golf Course property, the director of Sarasota County’s Public Works Department also stressed to the county commissioners: “The one thing we don’t have is control over the property.”

Having worked for months with Gulf Gate residents about the possibility of the county’s buying the land, Commissioner Joe Neunder had asked for a formal discussion about the site’s future. That occurred on Oct. 24, during the regular commission meeting.

The residents have cited the need for — and the benefits of — a major stormwater initiative on the property, instead of construction of a new residential development.

Spencer Anderson, director of Public Works, noted that day that he had talked with the owner of the land as recently as Oct. 19. “They expressed to me that they are a willing seller,” Anderson continued. However, he cautioned, “They said the word ‘multipliers’ ” in regard to the price at which they would be willing to sell, based on the county’s appraisals of the land in January.

As Anderson pointed out in a May 17 written report to the commissioners, one appraisal, performed by an outside consultant, came up with the value of $4,586,000. The second, handled by county staff, ended up with the figure of $3,845.

“The major difference in appraisal value was the utilized price for each of the 106 dwelling units [that the owner is entitled to build],” one of Anderson’s Oct. 24 PowerPoint slides explained.

The owner of record is Gulf Gate Holdings LLC, Sarasota County Property Appraiser Office records show. That company, which is based in Miami, is an affiliate of 13th Floor Homes. It bought the land for $3 million in late November 2022, the records note.

The golf course closed in 2005, according to golfproperty.com.

This is one type of house shown on the 13th Floor website as an example of planned construction on the former golf course property.

On its website, 13th Floor says its planned residential community on the former golf course would be called Lotus Bay. “Land development is expected to commence in [Quarter] 4 2022,” the 13th Floor website adds.

The original developer — who won County Commission approval in August 2016 for the rezoning of the property — was Carlos Beruff of Medallion Home.

The county has no funding that could be dedicated to buying the former golf course, Anderson also pointed out to the commissioners on Oct. 24.

Another slide he showed the commissioners did say that “[l]imited partial funding may be available from the Stormwater Environmental Utility in future budget years.”

Additionally, the slide pointed out, “A Public Improvement District (PID), inclusive of parcels benefitting from the property acquisition, could be created to fund the effort. The first element to be funded would be property acquisition. Direct benefit would have to be determined through analysis of a property appraiser …”

An example of a PID is in Siesta Key Village. In conjunction with the county’s undertaking a beautification initiative in the Village in 2008-09, it created the district. The owners of land within the district boundaries are assessed a tax each year to cover the maintenance of that district.

Yet another significant concern, Anderson told the commissioners on Oct. 24, is soil contamination, especially from arsenic, which was used both in agricultural operations on the site in decades past and in maintenance of the golf course.

In his May report to the board, Anderson quoted a document from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), written after its staff reviewed the site for the developer in 2022: “Elevated levels of arsenic and organochlorine pesticides in the soil will necessitate additional soil management techniques during site development to limit mobilization of [the chemicals] off site as well as soil use and transfer off site (soil blending). Elevated levels of arsenic were also found in the shallow water table, with concentrations also varied throughout the site. Long-term plume stability of arsenic can be appropriately monitored via a network of permanent monitor wells during and after remedial actions. The locations of these plumes will influence overall site construction and may need to be definitively mapped prior to a conceptual site plan.”

An article written primarily by Daphnis De Pooter on the Coastal Wiki website explains, “Organochlorine pesticides are chemically produced pesticides which include DDT, dieldrin, heptachlor, chlordane, endosulfan and dicofol. Many types [were] widely used as insecticides throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s until their use was banned in western countries [in the 1970’s]. Many organochlorine pesticides are extremely persistent in the environment.”

Anderson’s May report also said, “It is clear that a substantial public investment would be required to manage contaminated soils and groundwater within this property if a future construction project were to be undertaken.”

This aerial map shows the proximity of the former golf course to Little Sarasota Bay (to the left). Image from Google Maps

Anderson did tell the board members on Oct. 24 that the property owner had said the previous week that the company expected to receive clearance from FDEP “within two weeks” for construction of the residential community to proceed. If that timeline held, Anderson continued, the owner said that the company potentially could start site work about 90 days later.

Following Anderson’s Oct. 24 presentation, Neunder said, “I certainly believe in my heart that [a regional stormwater initiative on the site] is a very noble project for many reasons.” Nonetheless, he continued, “As it sits today,” 13th Floor is “basically holding the cards here. … I don’t know that we can do anything other than just perhaps wait at this point,” to learn whether the company would be willing to sell the land to the county and whether county staff could come up with the funding necessary to close the deal.

Commissioner Michael Moran added, “My instincts tell me we’re picking out the curtains on a house we haven’t even bought yet. This is the definition of negotiating with ourselves …”

Moreover, Moran pointed out, the soil contamination issue could be worse than expected.

Commissioner Mark Smith added, “I have a feeling that we have to wait and see.” When the developer finds out how much mitigation of the soil contamination would be necessary before any homes could be built, Smith continued, the property might go back on the market.

“I think all of us would love to see it happen,” Chair Ron Cutsinger said of the proposed stormwater initiative. Yet, he added, “It’s going to be very costly.”

As for 13th Floor’s leadership believing that FDEP will issue the necessary permits for the residential project within two weeks, Cutsinger said, “He believes in miracles, I think.”

Pleas for the making use of the property’s potential

Five members of the Gulf Gate Community Association showed up at the commission’s regular meeting on Sept. 12, while eight of them addressed the board members during the Open to the Public period of the Oct. 24 session. All were focused on the county’s taking control of the property.

Among those who spoke during both meetings, Cass Smith said on Oct. 24 that more than 1,000 friends and neighbors offered their thanks to the board members for considering the value of the property. She alluded to the fact that representatives of the association had met one-on-one with each of the commissioners the previous week.

“Our two drainage systems have no effective stormwater management system, according to the county,” Smith said on Oct. 24. All of the stormwater flows into Little Sarasota Bay, she added.

She showed the board members photos of street flooding in the community.

This photo of flooding in Gulf Gate is shown on the Gulf Gate Community Association’s website.

David Tomasko, executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP), emphasized on Oct. 24 that a pound of nitrogen results in the growth of 300 pounds of algae, which is harmful to water bodies. The City of Sarasota’s plans to construct an 18-acre wetlands system on part of the Bobby Jones Golf Coursewill result in the removal of about 4,500 pounds of nitrogen a year, he noted. Multiply that figure by 300, Tomasko told the commissioners, to find out how much less algae will end up in Sarasota Bay.

Tomasko also talked of the need for initiatives to offset the negative effects of more and more people moving to the county.

“New growth brings pollution,” he added. “This is a potential for a really large project,” he said of the Gulf Gate site, which is necessary to balance new development.

Moreover, Tomasko noted, “Large regional stormwater retrofit projects have a history of being funded by other entities.”

The Gulf Gate community was built before the county established its stormwater management program, which requires specific steps to treat runoff from residential areas, in an effort to maintain a higher level of water quality in the bays.

Another speaker on Oct. 24, Nolan Smith, who is 8, read a prepared statement at the podium, pointing out benefits of the county’s purchase of the property. For examples, Nolan said the land would be able to filter stormwater, removing harmful substances before they could reach the bay; waterfowl and migratory birds make their homes in wetlands; a project on the site would help reduce storm surges and flooding; and “People are drawn to these areas for outdoor recreation and wellness, which is super important for mental and physical health.”

The creation of a major stormwater project on the former golf course, Nolan added, might represent the best opportunity for effective stormwater treatment for Little Sarasota Bay.