Jake Bestic recalled his reaction the first time he saw the proposed plans to develop 40 acres of the Oak Bridge Golf Club as a continuing care retirement community with hundreds of units.
“I…was absolutely mortified at the thought of having something like this on this beautiful piece of land,” Bestic said.
A local Realtor, Bestic lives in the Hidden Oaks neighborhood, which abuts the part of the golf course slated for development. Since learning of the plans to develop the land, he and his neighbors have launched a grassroots campaign to purchase the property in question from golf course owner Alta Mar holdings and preserve it as a community park and botanical garden. The group shared its vision with approximately 40 residents last week at a community meeting held March 7 at the Ponte Vedra Beach Branch Public Library.
The meeting followed a Feb. 6 vote by residents of Sawgrass Players Club to lift deed restrictions on the golf course, thereby enabling Alta Mar to move ahead with its proposal to sell the course’s back 40 acres for development. At last week’s community meeting, however, Bestic stressed that the Players Club vote was by no means the last word on the property’s disposition.
“Nothing about this deal is set in stone,” said Bestic, noting that it will likely take an estimated nine months to a year before Alta Mar works through the local regulatory process and the proposal makes it to the Planning and Zoning Agency. After holding public hearings on the plan, the PZA will forward its recommendation for approval or denial to the Board of County Commissioners.
In the meantime, Bestic and his neighbor, Frank Levene, are hoping to launch an aggressive fundraising campaign to raise the funds needed to purchase the land from Alta Mar. According to Bestic, the Holland & Knight law firm is representing the group pro bono, working to draft an offer to purchase that would give the group a right of first refusal and one year to raise the funds needed to purchase the land. If the Board of County Commissioners approves Alta Mar’s development plans, that cost could range as high as $16 to $22 million, observers estimate.
Those figures don’t deter Bestic.
“It’s doable,” he said. “There’s a lot of money in our town and there are lot of giving people in our town as well.”
Ponte Vedra’s “Central Park”
Proponents of the park proposal say preserving the golf course land would fill a critical need for more open space in Ponte Vedra at a time when development continues to increase the community’s density.
“We don’t have any central gathering places in Ponte Vedra Beach, period,” Bestic said, noting that many of the community’s recreational areas are located in gated communities or belong to private clubs. The golf course land, he continued, “is the perfect spot for the public park we want and need.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Deb Chapin. The District 4 representative on the St. Johns County Recreation Advisory Board, Chapin is the creative force behind the drive to create a Palm Valley-Ponte Vedra Greenway and Preserve that would connect Landrum Lane to Solana Road.
Noting that the PVPV Greenway project was in the process of forming strategic partnerships with other groups, including the National Park Service, Chapin said she believes the “Central Park” concept would support her initiative’s efforts to preserve what little open space remains in Ponte Vedra.
“The quality of life is really becoming a challenge here,” she said. “We’re very supportive of this potential opportunity. It’s a need that has very critical timing.”
Beyond the aesthetic and environmental benefits of a centralized park, supporters said, preserving the land as a park would prevent a new development from adding to Ponte Vedra’s traffic woes and affecting local property values.
“As a real estate professional, I am very concerned about what the property values would do if the development were to come to fruition – not just the property values of homes around the golf course, but the property values of every home in Ponte Vedra,” Bestic said. “As soon as our town starts to become known as the assisted living capital of North Florida, then we’re in trouble.”
While many attendees expressed enthusiasm and support for the proposed park, some residents wanted specifics on how its construction and ongoing maintenance would be funded. Others expressed doubts the money to purchase the land could be raised in time.
Realtor Cindey Nordman, however, said groups across the country have been successful in preserving valuable parcels of land as open space.
“This isn’t something that’s never been done before,” she said. “This isn’t an impossible dream, but it is a very hard one.”
The next step, group members say, is to gain widespread support across the community. Organizers have already launched a website – www.sawgrassvillagepark.com – where residents can learn more and sign a petition supporting the park proposal. The focus now, they say, is on spreading the word and gaining as much community support as possible to demonstrate the plan’s popularity and viability.
“Jake has started a flame to educate all of us on what we can do,” Nordman said. “But this has to be community driven – we have to take action.”