Local residents propose buying, preserving golf course land as park and botanical garden


As Sawgrass Players Club residents prepare to vote on whether to approve lifting deed restrictions that would allow The Oak Bridge Club’s owners to sell the back nine holes of the golf course for development, another group of local residents has organized to try and raise the funds to purchase and preserve the property as a community park and botanical garden.

Ponte Vedra Beach’s Hidden Oaks neighborhood is not part of Sawgrass Players Club – but many of its homes abut the portion of the golf course Alta Mar Holdings proposes selling for development as a continuing care retirement community and a new cultural center.

“We just want to push ‘pause’ on this plan,” said Dr. Frank Levene, whose Oak View Circle home overlooks the golf course. “Just give us a crack at raising the money.”

A native of England who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1997, Levene has owned a home in Hidden Oaks since 1992. His children attended Landrum Middle School and Nease High School, and while international business interests now find him dividing his time between Ponte Vedra and England, the 70-year-old executive said he had planned to retire soon to his home here.

It wasn’t until Levene returned from business abroad in the fall that neighbors informed him of the plans to develop the golf course behind their homes.

“We were very offended, frankly, by their plans,” said Levene, who stressed that his opposition to the land’s development goes beyond his own personal interests as an abutter. “I’ve tried to step back and focus on what’s the best solution for all of Ponte Vedra, not just me or the Players Club. This is one of the last significant pieces of undeveloped land in this part of Ponte Vedra. There must be a better plan.”

One alternative, Levene and his supporters say, would be for local residents to raise the funds needed to purchase the property from Alta Mar and preserve it as a community park and botanical garden. The group has created a website – www.sawgrassvillagepark.com – and Facebook page where residents can sign up to show their support and offer to help raise awareness and the funds needed to purchase the property. The group also plans to host a public town hall meeting in early January to present the park and garden proposal to the community.

Sawgrass Players Club Master Association Board President Gerard Klingman acknowledged that Levene had called him about the park proposal, but said he he immediately referred him to Alta Mar, which owns the property. Klingman stressed that the master association has had no meetings or seen any formal presentations about the suggested park.

“We are currently in negotiations with the Millers,” he said.

David Miller said that while he was open to considering the park proposal, he felt the timing was premature.

“If the community were able to raise the funds (to purchase the property for a park), I’m open to that,” said Miller, adding that regardless of how the property is eventually developed, a vote to remove the deed restrictions is still required. “This vote in no way will affect the community’s opportunity to acquire the property in the future.”

Miller questioned whether the park proponents have the ability to raise the millions of dollars that would be required to purchase the property. Levene, however, said he is confident his group could raise the money needed to purchase the land. Already, he said, the group has reached out to the North Florida Land Trust for counsel and advice, and secured an attorney to assist them in their cause. Levene also said several backers have pledged a significant portion of the money needed to jumpstart a fundraising campaign.

Park proponents stressed that they are not trying to derail the agreement between the golf club owners and Players Club residents, but merely gain the time needed to put together a viable proposal that would benefit all concerned.

“If we can offer the same amount of money (as commercial developers), the garden would obviously be a much better option,” said local Realtor and Hidden Oaks resident Jake Bestic. “This is an opportunity to do something good for the community and leave a legacy we can all be proud of.”