The city of Naples is reviewing options to strengthen the easement that would preserve the golf course at the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, the Naples Daily News reported.
The Naples City Council authorized the hiring of the Ausley McMullen law firm in September for $50,000 to explore options related to the easement, which was part of the approval to redevelop the hotel property in 2019.
At a public meeting last month, the city council approved another $50,000 expense for the Tallahassee-based law firm to finish the project on behalf of the city.
Ausley McMullen is “exploring options with respect to possible revisions to the easement proposed to be given for preservation of the land associated with the golf course,” Jim Fox, the city attorney, said in an email to the Daily News.
When the Naples City Council approved the plan to redevelop the hotel property in 2019, the council also voted to accept an easement from the developer, The Athens Group, that would allow the city to preserve the golf course as open green space into the future.
The council at the time chose not to include a third party, such as a community group, in the agreement for the easement.
Naples Councilman Paul Perry, who in 2019 was the president of the Aqualane Shores Association, said that decision removed an enforcement mechanism should a the city council decide to abandon the green space in the future. A third party connected to the easement could hold the city council accountable in the future to ensure the space is preserved, Perry said.
The new city council chose to revisit the easement after the city election in March, Perry said.
“Once I got on council, members were in support of reversing that. That’s why we decided to go get some special expertise in easement enforcement,” Perry said. “We’re not trying to rejigger the restrictions on it. We’re not redoing any of that. All we’re doing is getting the enforcement mechanism secured.”
Councilman Ray Christman said he also saw an interest among the city council in looking again at the easement after the city council elections this year.
“I, for one, but I think others agreed as well, that it was appropriate to revisit this issue, to see whether there’s ways it can be strengthened to protect the property as open space in perpetuity,” Christman said.
Recent meetings with neighbors about how the developer will manage construction have stirred up new concerns about how the golf course and other undeveloped land may be altered.
During a series of community outreach meetings, questions arose about the golf course and other land that The Athens Group promised to preserve from the beginning. The developer insists that its agreements with the city won’t allow it to reduce the amount of open space, so there should be no worry about that.
“The 104 acres of open space are indeed being preserved for recreation and open-space uses, as defined and required in the entitlements that were approved by Naples City Council,” said Jay Newman, CEO of The Athens Group, in an email.
“Golf and tennis will continue to be part of those uses.”
Still, there are neighborhood and community concerns with the recreational plan for the project yet to be finalized.
Jack Ladley, who owns a home across the street from the hotel, said he and other neighbors are worried the developer might reduce the size of the golf course, cutting it from 18 holes to 10 or 15. He plays the course and doesn’t want to see any radical changes to it.
He attended one of the developer’s recent outreach meetings, where new possibilities for the open space came up, including the addition of more recreational uses, such as volleyball, pickleball and basketball and other features such as a golf school or miniature golf.
“For the first time they started talking about redoing the size of the golf course, not having 18 holes,” Ladley said.
He pointed out that the current owners reworked and upgraded the iconic course just a few years ago, with the help of golf legend Jack Nicklaus, who played on the course as a kid. Nicklaus, a leading course designer, has created hundreds of them worldwide.
The revamp of the hotel’s par-71 golf course, completed in 2016, cost the current owners $9 million.
“It’s not a cruddy, tired course,” Ladley said.
That’s why he said he doesn’t see why the developer might want to change it, when everything is like new at the course, which some have dubbed Naples’ Central Park.
“It’s nice to be able to have a golf course and look out on to it. I think that everyone wanted to keep that open space for so many reasons,” Ladley said.
As for the developer’s construction management plan, he said it seems to be well planned out.
The plan was produced in collaboration with a “knowledgeable and experienced” general contractor in Southwest Florida, Newman said.
“It was vetted with the city and its various departments before we shared the plan with the community for their input,” he said.
The developer held nine in-person meetings and one Zoom meeting as part of its community outreach, which drew nearly 250 neighbors and other community residents with interest in the project.
Based on those community meetings, The Athens Group has refined its construction management plans. Those changes include relocating the construction entrance so that it sits directly off U.S. 41 rather than South Golf Drive, resolving concerns about added traffic on the neighborhood road, Newman said.
“We look forward to continuing to work with the city and all stakeholders, including our project neighbors, as plans for the new Naples Beach Club hotel, golf course and residences continue to develop,” he said.
The project is continuing to advance ahead of the developer’s planned acquisition of the property in May of next year.
“We are pleased to report that we continue to be on schedule for the project,” Newman said.
Construction is expected to start shortly after the closing. The first phase, including redevelopment of the hotel, is scheduled for completion at the end of 2023, according to a website on the plan to redevelop the hotel property.
The City Council gave the project its final thumbs up about a year ago, voting 6-1 in favor of changes to the original development plan for the residences as well as the accompanying site plan.
Councilman Terry Hutchison was the lone dissenter. Before his vote, he said he saw the redevelopment project as one of the city’s greatest achievements, but it came with “one of our biggest mistakes.”
The councilman said all the right people are involved in the project, including a top-notch development team, but the protections to ensure the golf course didn’t go far enough for him to vote in favor of the amended development plan.
“There is no question that this was a tremendous opportunity for our community,” he said at the time. “Did we get it right? In my opinion, we didn’t. We missed our opportunity to properly secure the 100-plus acres of recreation, open space for generations to come.”
As the developer’s purchase of the property draws closer, the hotel has announced it will close its doors on May 23, 2021, and its longtime owners are encouraging loyal guests to return and others who have never visited to experience what it has to offer before time runs out.
The Watkins family has owned the hotel for decades. In that time, Michael Watkins, the resort’s president and an owner, said his family has taken pride in its tradition of providing outstanding hospitality to its guests.
“We look forward to celebrating our final season with our guests and patrons this winter and spring,” he said.
For those who can’t visit, the hotel’s beach and famous sunsets can be seen on its webcam by visiting naplesbeachhotel.com.
original article link https://golfweek.usatoday.com/2020/12/12/preservation-of-naples-beach-hotel-and-golf-course-in-florida-under-city-councils-review/