When Bob Bruno bought his house in the Sabal Point neighborhood more than two decades ago, he thought he'd found the perfect home.
Bruno loved to play golf, and he had a great view of the ninth fairway from his Seminole County home's back yard.
"I thought that, for the rest of my life, I would look outside and have a view of the golf course," Bruno said. "We actually picked it out because we would have no other homes in our back yard, and I thought it was going to be like that forever."
Not exactly. The Sabal Point Country Club closed in 2006, the clubhouse has been demolished, and the fairways are overgrown with weeds and brush.
Then in September, the owner of the property submitted plans to build homes and townhouses on most of the 161 acres of the old golf course. And that has some of the more than 1,600 Sabal Point home and condo owners — including 200 along the 18-hole golf course — worried that they'll soon lose their cherished open space.
"It has turned into the most important issue for our community," said Wayne Hunicke, president of the Sabal Point Community Services Association.
Hunicke and his neighbors likely won't be the last to lose their fairway views to development. In the past decade, fewer players and a glut of courses have made it harder to turn a profit. Owners have turned to closing courses and building homes, disappointing current residents who moved into golf course communities for the fairway views.
"Unfortunately, we don't have anything that says that if people bought into a community that they will always have that open space," said Nicole Guillet, deputy county manager in Seminole County.
But there are precautions that consumers can take before signing a contract on that new home — all of them falling under the "buyer beware" umbrella.
Read all documents before signing a contract on a new house. Or hire a real estate lawyer to do so. A common assumption going into any transaction, experts say, should be that nothing is permanent — whether it's a golf course, a park or a vacant piece of land adjoining the home of your dreams.
If the house you're purchasing is in a community with a homeowners association, use its officers as a resource. They can tell you about any restrictions of development in open areas, Guillet said. Those restrictions might be a homeowner's strongest protection.
Find out through your county or city offices what kind of development, if any, adjacent land is designated for. That information is a public record. Request the documents to see what the land might become. Or call your city or county commissioner and ask.
"A home is the biggest purchase you are going to make," said Duke Woodson, a land-use attorney in Orlando. "And you're going to be presented with a pile of papers (before closing on the sale), and in that pile of papers, it's going to specify any deed restrictions.
"Try to get a comfort level so you know what you will be protected against."
Even then, there are no guarantees.
Last year, for example, the owners of the Casselberry Golf Club in Casselberry told city officials that their business was no longer profitable and were considering selling it to a developer.
But a 1973 deed restriction on the property states that if the golf course ever becomes "economically unfeasible," then the owner "shall convey the property, free of charge" to Casselberry, and the city should maintain it as a conservation area.
The owners of the Casselberry Golf Club have since sued the city seeking to overturn that deed restriction.
In turn, Casselberry city commissioners agreed to look into purchasing the golf course property and turning it into a park with nature trails.
Joyce Potts, a longtime property appraiser and owner of Southern Appraisal Group in Altamonte Springs, said it's hard to tell if home values in a golf course community will go up or down if new homes are built on the old fairways and greens. It might depend on whether the new homes are compatible with the existing ones.
Preliminary plans for the Sabal Point golf course do not show how many homes and townhouses will be built. Officials with the land planning firm CPH, which is representing the property owner, Golf Brooke LLC, said it will likely be more than a year before new homes are approved.
Hunicke said that most Sabal Point homeowners will accept some development, as long as it's compatible with the existing homes, including in size and price range. And any new development should include plenty of open space.
"People moved to Sabal Point because of that open space that the golf course offered," Hunicke said. "But even people that don't live on the course are very concerned because of an increase in traffic and congestion and the loss of open space that new homes would bring."