The 88-year-old St. Petersburg Country Club, like many others nationwide, is in financial trouble. To keep it operating, club officials say they need to find a lot of money — fast.
To do so, they have agreed to sell about 10 acres of club land to Arizona-based housing developer Taylor Morrison, who wants to build 115 gated townhomes.
But the deal might not happen. And it should not happen.
The 10 acres in question, near the 13th hole of the golf course, is adjacent to the 245-acre Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, one of the few remaining pieces of Old Florida in our region and one of the city's crown jewels.
The natural charms of Boyd Hill attract more than 50,000 visitors a year — including thousands of schoolchildren — eager to experience some authentic relief from urban life in Florida's most densely populated county.
Fortunately, residents of Lakewood Estates; staff, volunteers and board members of Boyd Hill; and a coalition of activists are fighting the townhomes project. I am on their side.
Ample evidence shows that building on the 10 acres would damage the preserve. The land is an aquifer recharge area and serves as a vital buffer zone between the preserve, the golf course and the homes along Fairway Avenue S. Among the species believed to be potentially impacted is the gopher tortoise, listed as threatened by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
I spoke with Lakewood Estates residents Ric and Maggie Langford and Celeste Nesbitt, who said they are not enemies of the country club and do not want it to fold. In fact, they see it as an asset to the community. They simply oppose the construction alongside the preserve.
I was impressed that as they expressed their opposition, the Langfords and Nesbitt did not speak of politics or lawsuits. They want the city — which has the authority to stop the project — the country club and the developer to appreciate the intrinsic public value of the preserve's wildness and the residents' love of the neighborhood's beauty.
"I can walk out my back door and have an alligator in the pool," said Nesbitt, who has lived in the same house since childhood and who created the Save Boyd Hill Facebook page. "Just two weeks ago, we had a turtle nesting in our front yard. It followed you everywhere to make sure you don't go near the nest. We live in one of the best places in the county.
"I watched a bald eagle for 30 years nest right outside my front door, watched their babies take flight and watched them do their mating dance. There are not that many human beings who live in a populated area who can say they see these things."
Ric Langford, who has lived on Fairway Avenue for 10 years, said he and his wife have had similar experiences.
"We're very fortunate," he said. "We can sit in our front yard and see foxes, eagles and coyotes. We have bald eagles fly over our house to their nest almost on a daily basis. If we lose that long buffer zone to townhomes, there are going to be issues with wildlife. We're talking about 10 acres of homes and 200 cars along the fence line of the preserve. The animals living in that area now will have to go away or become roadkill."
Jim House, a field biologist and a member of the board of directors of the Friends of Boyd Hill, took me on a walk through the area in the preserve that would be impacted by the new housing.
"Wherever they build, we are going to have to cut another 30 feet in as a buffer zone," House said. "However their proposal is worded, we're going to have a net loss of preserve property. This is a very nice native hammock. This is what Florida looks like — well, what it used to look like. We'll lose this if they build."
In July, the city threw out Morrison's application and gave the developer until Sept. 30 to submit a new plan. No matter what design Morrison returns with, townhomes should not be allowed near Boyd Hill Nature Preserve.