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Hillsborough commissioners balk at golf course redevelopment

The controversial plan called for 251 homes on the site of the closed Pebble Creek Golf Club.
 
The former Pebble Creek Golf Club closed in 2021 after operating for more than 50 years in the New Tampa area of Hillsborough County.
The former Pebble Creek Golf Club closed in 2021 after operating for more than 50 years in the New Tampa area of Hillsborough County. [ Times (1999) ]
Published July 18, 2023|Updated July 18, 2023

A plan to turn a former golf course into a 251-home neighborhood landed in the rough Tuesday.

A Hillsborough County commission majority nixed GL Homes’ proposal to turn the closed Pebble Creek Golf Club into a gated community. The former golf course, east of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and just 1.5 miles south of Pasco County, dates to 1967. That is five years before the actual Pebble Creek development of 1,353 homes began.

The 150-acre site is owned by Bill Place of Ace Golf. He purchased the course in 2005 for $2.1 million, but closed it in 2021, citing falling memberships and a need for expensive renovations. He also tried, but failed, to persuade the county commission to designate the course as a brownfield, which would have made it eligible for financial assistance to clean the property of chemical pesticides.

“It is not viable to reopen,” land use attorney Jake Cremer, representing GL Homes, said about the golf course.

The original development plan did not guarantee the golf course would remain in perpetuity, Cremer said. The approved development plan for Pebble Creek included 679 homes that were never constructed. The 251 single-family homes from GL Homes should be construed as replacing ”a defunct use with already approved units,” Cremer said.

Bill Place, owner of Ace Golf.
Bill Place, owner of Ace Golf. [ Bill Place ]

Place’s plan to sell the land for residential housing has drawn strong opposition from some neighbors, but abundant support as well. As they did in a previous hearing, residents wore their sentiments across their chests Tuesday. Supporters in the overflow crowd dressed in blue T-shirts proclaiming “vote yes” while opponents wore red shirts urging commissioners to “Save Pebble Creek” and held signs stating “no.”

Supporters said new upscale homes and park amenities were a preferred alternative to an overgrown, unsightly field. Opponents said closing the golf course broke a promise with homebuyers, created potential pollution problems and diminished their quality of life.

Earlier objections brought a lawsuit from Place against leading critic Leslie Green. Ace Golf filed suit against Green last year, saying her public statements and letter-writing campaign had interfered with its business. She countered that Place was attempting to stifle her First Amendment rights through a strategic lawsuit against public participation, known as a SLAPP suit.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher C. Nash hasn’t issued a ruling after a March 8 hearing in which Green’s attorneys sought to dismiss Place’s suit, saying its only intent was to curb public opposition in advance of the county’s public hearing.

Leslie Green is a leading critic of the plan to turn the closed Pebble Creek Golf Club into a residential development.
Leslie Green is a leading critic of the plan to turn the closed Pebble Creek Golf Club into a residential development. [ Leslie Green ]
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“This SLAPP suit has done what it has meant to do. Many residents are fearful of showing (their) faces or commenting on Facebook for fear of retaliation,” Green said Monday in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

“This was meant to be a golf course community and that is what we bought into,” she told commissioners Tuesday.

Commission Chairperson Ken Hagan’s district includes the Pebble Creek neighborhood, and he announced his opposition early in the commission debate. He spoke after Commissioner Gwen Myers noted a photo of a broken wood bridge on the property showed “it is truly an eyesore in the community.”

“The owner is entitled to make a request; that doesn’t make it right,” Hagan said.

He criticized Place for bullying tactics, including suing Green, and said he based his opposition on land use rules that are supposed to protect existing neighborhoods.

The commission denied the rezoning on a 5-2 vote with Commissioners Joshua Wostal and Harry Cohen dissenting.