New owners of golf course propose developing 40 acres

Property along A1A would house retirement community, cultural center

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Forty acres of the Ponte Vedra Golf and Country Club would be developed for use by a continuing care community and the Cultural Center at Ponte Vedra Beach under a proposal presented by new club owners Alta Mar LLC at the Sawgrass Players Club’s master board of directors meeting last week.

Held April 8 at the Sawgrass Marriott, the board meeting attracted a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 Sawgrass Players Club residents, who came to hear Alta Mar’s Dave Miller present his plans for the golf course formerly known as Oak Bridge. Board President John Flynn opened the meeting by saying that informal communications – including an anonymous letter circulated among residents – had created confusion and misconceptions about the status and details of Alta Mar’s plans.

“This board is committed to transparency,” said Flynn, who stressed the board would be seeing Alta Mar’s presentation for the first time along with those present. “We’re not going to be in a hurry to make a decision and we will be guided by the opinions of a majority of the community members.”

Flynn said a town hall meeting would be scheduled in the future to give residents an opportunity to ask further questions and offer input. In addition, minutes approved at last week’s meeting specified that the board would not vote on Alta Mar’s proposal at its April 28 meeting, as the board would be electing new members at that time.

Tom Jenks, the board’s attorney, said much of the confusion and rumors surrounding the proposal stemmed from a misunderstanding about a vote the community took several years ago to extend its covenants through 2041. Those covenants were separate from the covenants and restrictions governing the golf course, he said, which state that the property only has to be maintained as a golf course through 2023.

“If I understand this correctly, after seven years Oak Bridge Golf and Country can do anything they want to do without the authorization of the Sawgrass community?” board member Debbie Skorewicz asked.

“The one word answer to that,” Jenks said, “is yes.”

A ‘failed community asset’

“Some of you view me as a villain,” Dave Miller said in beginning his presentation. “When I looked at myself this morning brushing my teeth, I kind of looked at myself as a martyr.”

Noting that he and partner Jeff Miller both own homes in the Sawgrass Players Club, Miller said he was hailed as a hero just two months ago when he took ownership of the golf course after the club’s former operator went into default.

“We’re not some shark developer coming out of Atlanta trying to swoop in on your asset,” he said. “We’re here to give out facts and present some realities we’re all facing. Sawgrass Players Club has a failed community asset which does not benefit the property values throughout the community.”

Miller said he originally purchased the mortgage note in December 2014 with the belief that a buyer would purchase the course. He soon learned, however, that the property’s condition made that impossible.

“It’s an absolute disaster – everything from the equipment to cut the grass, to the rotted out floors, to the pool to the kitchen to the tennis courts are in consistent disarray,” Miller said. “One local party told us, ‘Even if you gave this asset to us, we wouldn’t take it.’”

At the same time, he added, golf as an industry is in trouble, saying that one-third of all courses are operating in the red as participation decreases and maintenance costs increase. To compensate for what some industry observers say are the sport’s three main challenges – namely the amount of time, money and skill required to play golf – some clubs are changing to 12-hole courses.

“During my first two months (of owning the golf course) I lost $50,000 a month,” he said.

$5 million renovation

Alta Mar’s proposal calls for the company to invest $5 million in renovations to Oak Bridge, including $750,000 for greens reconstruction, $750,000 for fairways improvements, $500,000 for clubhouse and golf shop renovation, and $500,000 to rebuild the tennis facilities. Other planned improvements include new maintenance equipment, bunker improvements, driving range renovation and a new $1.8 million irrigation system.

Some of these improvements have already begun, Miller said, along with operational changes that include hiring PGA pro Mike Miles as director of golf operations and Elad Gabay as head tennis pro. A well-known local restaurateur has also contracted to provide food service, he added.

To make the project financially viable, Miller said Alta Mar would need to reconfigure the golf course and “monetize” the project by developing 40 acres. That land – which Alta Mar proposes splitting into two parcels – would become the site of an age-restricted continuing care community and the Cultural Center at Ponte Vedra Beach.

“The entire golf course is not going away,” Tony Robbins of engineering firm Prosser stressed, adding that Miller had already invested $1.5 million in improvements. “The plan is to develop a revitalized golf course that is structured for the 21st century…to retain and invigorate Oak Bridge and the surrounding community.”

Addressing potential traffic concerns, Robbins said the proposed continuing care community and cultural center would only be accessible from A1A. “None of (the traffic) will come through your neighborhoods,” he said. Buildings on the section of the property closest to residents (parcel A) would be limited to one story, with a three-story limit for buildings located on parcel B on A1A near Sawgrass Village.

“I think our new proposal benefits the entire community,” Miller said. He added, however, that the community needs to make a decision, since in 2023 the restrictions will be removed and Alta Mar will be able to sell the property without community approval.

“You’re not looking at a guy who’s going to lose $50,000 a month,” he said. “I see the passion you all have. We can make Oak Bridge great again.”

Some residents, however, expressed doubts and reservations about Alta Mar’s plans.

“It’s kind of hard for me to believe you didn’t know the condition of the property (when you purchased the mortgage),” resident Bill Livingood said to applause.

Other residents sought to gain some assurance that if the community approved Alta Mar’s plans, the owners would commit to maintaining the golf course until 2041 and not continue to sell off pieces of the property.

“If we monetize it, then yes, we would extend it to 2041,” Miller said.

Salt Creek resident and Realtor Linda Ostoski said she felt such a commitment was critical in terms of gaining the community’s approval. “But what they say is true,” she said. “The condition of the golf course is a dilemma homeowners are going to have to face. It does need a lot of money to bring it up to standards.”

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