New Tampa residents seek mulligan on golf course clean up

The Pebble Creek Golf Course owner wants brownfield designation before selling land for residential development.
The Pebble Creek Golf Club and surrounding residences in New Tampa.
The Pebble Creek Golf Club and surrounding residences in New Tampa. [ Times (1999) ]
Published Dec. 12, 2020|Updated Dec. 12, 2020

NEW TAMPA — A golf course owner wants to turn green fairways into brownfields.

Ace Golf, owner of the Pebble Creek Golf Course just east of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, is seeking a brownfields designation from Hillsborough County as a precursor to cleaning contaminants from the land and selling it for residential development.

If granted, the designation means the property cleanup will be done under the jurisdiction of the county’s Environmental Protection Commission, rather than the state Department of Environmental Protection. The brownfield label also carries a tax credit for Ace Golf to help reduce the remediation cost.

Some residents in the more than 1,300-home Pebble Creek subdivision are objecting, fearing that calling the land environmentally damaged will stigmatize the neighborhood and hurt property values.

Others don’t like the potential end result: Up to 300 new single-family homes on the 150 acres that have played host to birdies, eagles, divots and duffers for more than five decades.

“I’ve heard no compelling evidence that the contamination is widespread or imminent as an ecological (danger) to the homeowners, especially if the course remains a course,’' said Frederick Pearce of Fairwood Court.

He and his wife, Lisa, bought their home seven years ago because of the course, and he called the brownfield application “a subterfuge’' to allow the land to be rezoned more quickly.

“A brownfield designation next to our homes will decimate our property values,’' agreed Juliana Karp, a 22-year resident of Norchester Circle, who said the area still hasn’t recovered fully from the 2008 housing crisis.

But a clean up is inevitable, and asking for the county’s blessing is not an attempt to sidestep the normal zoning process, said representatives for Ace Golf.

“The reality of this site is the golf course won’t be there forever,” said one the company’s attorneys, Travis Hearne. “Remediation will be required to reuse this property.”

The environmental request adds a few strokes to a now-familiar public debate across the region: The closure of community golf courses amid dwindling interest in the sport decades after developers used putting greens and sand traps as the prime amenity to sell home lots in new neighborhoods.

Related: Pasco okays Quail Hollow golf course conversion

See Walden Lakes in Plant City, Quail Hollow near Wesley Chapel and the Links in Hudson as recent examples of shuttered courses in residential developments.

There also is the high profile debate over the proposed development of the former Tides Golf Club in unincorporated Seminole in Pinellas County and a prior brouhaha over development plans for the Bardmoor Golf and Tennis Club, also in Seminole. Neither development plan has progressed.

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Related: Developer to resubmit application for Tides Golf Club

Quoting National Golf Course Owners Association forecasts, Ace Golf president Bill Place said more than 800 courses will close nationally over the next 10 years.

“We’re trying to get ahead of this,” said Place, who purchased the Pebble Creek Golf Course in 2005.

Ace Golf owns three other courses in the area and bought Pebble Creek “not as a development site and never with any intention to build on the site. We are (course) operators,” said Place.

The club has 73 full members, only 20 of whom are residents of Pebble Creek, he said. The turnout on a recent sunny, 75-degree afternoon illustrated his point. Half of the two dozen parking spots reserved for members sat empty.

“That’s typical,’' he said.

Related: Didn't that used to be a golf course?

The course, he said, is operating at a break-even margin and he doesn’t anticipate it being financially viable over the next five years. It didn’t used to be this way. At its peak in the 1990s, the course had 300 members, Place said.

Pebble Creek Golf Course dates to 1967, back when Bruce B. Downs Boulevard was a two-lane road still known as 30th Street. In the ensuing years, luring northern retirees to a golfing lifestyle became a common business model for Florida’s residential developers.

But market oversaturation, younger people preferring other recreational outlets, and developers trying to divest themselves of ongoing course maintenance costs changed the golf landscape.

Man-made lagoons, bicycle and hiking trails, nature preserves and even farm-to-table community gardens in so-called agri-hoods have replaced golf courses as the touted amenities in 21st century subdivisions.

Course operators have more than video games and cycling trails with which to compete — they have each other. There are 20 golf courses in Tampa and 31 more within 20 miles, according to the web site Pebble Creek’s location, less than 1.5 miles south of Pasco County, also meant it had to compete for golfers with courses there, including one of Place’s other holdings, Plantation Palms in Land O’ Lakes.

Business at Pebble Creek dropped, Place said, after he bought, refurbished and reopened Plantation Palms in 2016, two years after the previous owners had shut it down.

Place said Pebble Creek needs a new $500,000 irrigation system and it must replace the roof at the banquet hall at a cost of $90,000. This comes just two years after the owners put a new roof on the cart barn and installed new air conditioning and new carpeting and window treatments in the banquet facility.

The expenses have left owners of aging courses in a dilemma. Invest or sell?

When a developer came calling two years ago, Place listened. But the redevelopment plans landed in the rough when soil samples showed high levels of arsenic and dieldrin from insecticide applications, particularly on the greens and tee boxes.

The pitch for the brownfield destination is a chance for a mulligan to advance the redevelopment plans from 13th Floor Homes of south Florida.

About 40 residents attended a Nov. 30 community meeting with none of the speakers voicing support for the plans, attendees said. And the objections continued Dec. 2, during the first of two public hearings before Hillsborough County commissioners.

Pearce said the course should be nominated for historical designation. The state has recognized 53 courses as part of its Florida Historic Golf Trail including the Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club, and the Babe Zaharias, Rocky Point and Rogers Park golf courses in Tampa.

Shane Billings of Cypress Shadow Avenue suggested the county consider buying the land through its environmental land conservation program.

The community push back didn’t go unnoticed by commissioners.

“I am monitoring the issue closely and will support the neighborhood’s interest,” said Commissioner Ken Hagan.

The commission vote on the brownfield application is scheduled for Wednesday after a second public hearing, but the county staff has recommended rejecting the designation because it does not carry the required economic benefits. Closing the course, banquet hall and restaurant would eliminate 36 jobs, while creating six new full-time positions, according to county documents.

Place said previously that the remediation work, including removing up to two feet of soil from the greens and tee boxes, would proceed regardless of the commission’s stance on the brownfield request.

“You can’t take away the fact,” Place said, “that this is contamination and something has to be done about it.”