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Choose wisely
August 18, 2017

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Nestled in the heart of one of the Cape's oldest neighborhoods lies a piece of history - 175 acres that once were home to not only the city's first golf course but one of its first community amenities, the old Cape Coral Country Club, home to countless dinner dances, banquets, weddings and celebrations through the '60s and '70s.

The club house? Torn down.

Tennis courts? Gone.

The course that once hosted an NCAA national championship?

Closed in 2006, its manicured greens and fairways now overgrown acreage, declared by the city as "blight" when the property was folded into the South Cape Community Redevelopment Agency.

But if maintenance has been mown down to the minimum the desire to see the property emerge again into a city gem has not.

In fact, it is exactly that desire that has resulted in a years-long civil war of sorts here in the Cape. The skirmishes pit neighboring property owners, who would love for the course to be groomed to its former glory - or at least developed into a passive park - against the land owner who has held steadfast to a perceived market price that looks less to the past and more to the future.

On Monday, the Save Our Recreation coalition will again attempt to stave off a requested change to site's land use designation - parks- to a designation that would match its zoning, single-family residential.

D.R. Horton, a national builder with an already strong presence in the Cape, has a contract to purchase the property from Ryan Companies. The sale is contingent on Cape Coral City Council agreeing to transmit the request to the state - which will rubber stamp it and send it back to the city for final consideration.

D.R. Horton proposes to build a gated community subdivision centered around a series of lakes, which would leave just shy of half the property "open;" construct a private club house complex to include a wealth of amenities; and to donate an 11.5 acre parcel to the city for a public park.

The time has come for Council to make a decision and it's more than a yea or nay on the transmittal. It's time for Council to either acknowledge that the property will be developed by some private party - or it's time to agree with those who argue it should be a park, i.e. public property.

Our heart on this one is weighs heavily with Save Our Recreation. We, too, would love to see a park on the site although we would guess their definition of a recreational facility that would benefit the entire city and ours differs substantially.

We do understand the desire for green space because "once it's gone, it's gone forever."

We're just not willing to ask the city, and all of its other taxpayers, to pay for it - not this late in the game after the city, the CRA and private organizations that find or raise money for land preservation have all backed away from purchase due to cost. And not after other attempts to find a suitable use for the acreage, either public or private, have been rejected by these property owners who just want, well a park.

Consider:

In 2005, the School District of Lee County eyed the site for a possible multi-school campus.

Reaction in opposition was swift and adamant; the district withdrew its $26 million offer for the land.

In 2007, the land owner filed an application to change the land use designation to mixed use. Reaction opposed was again swift. The battle this time, though, was long. Cape Coral City Council killed the application in 2009 by declining transmittal to the state. Litigation ensued with the city's decision ultimately upheld by the court in 2013.

At the time the city argued that the "highest and best use" for the property - the most the landowner could hope for in terms of proposed development - was single-family residential.

D. R. Horton then stepped forward in 2014 in support of the land owners's application for exactly that - a land use change that would allow single-family homes to be built.

Does that mean Council must vote to transmit on Monday?

No, it's a legislative decision, their legislative decision.

But the determination must be based on facts, facts based on compliance with the city's comprehensive plan and various related rules and regulations, something the city's Planning & Zoning Board chose to discount.

But city staff, which has recommended approval, did not.

According to staff's findings:

* The city no longer designates the future land use of privately held property as parks. The existing parks designation on the site is a vestige of the city's first state-mandated comprehensive plan which required future land use maps to show park land. This is no longer the case.

* While the site would appear to be a loss of park land, "privately owned land should not be considered" when calculating such losses because such properties could only be developed as parks through sale or lease to the city or some other public entity.

* Even if the land use designation holds, "the site was never intended as a habitat for wildlife." It was a golf course.

* The application, at the maximum number of homes, would not reduce the level of service standards in the comprehensive plan. Roadways, water, sewer and irrigation have capacity to support the additional maximum of 771 single-family homes.

* Redevelopment would remove the designation of blight from the site and enhance this portion for the city CRA."

* The project would not diminish nearby property values but likely would increase the values of nearby residences, most of which are older homes.

* While the city has an abundance of "rooftops," "Cape Coral has very few master-planned subdivisions that provide open space or recreational amenities."

* It's infill development with services already in place. Existing infrastructure will either be improved by the project or will not be impacted.

And key:

* Staff found "that the SF future land use and designation is compatible and consistent with the surrounding residential community..."

This combination of history - yes, history, from pre-closure to present- and staff findings point to a "yes" vote to those who pull emotion from the equation: Cape Coral City Council should vote to transmit the land use change to the state.

And if not?

Well, as we stated earlier, our heart is with the parks proponents - we just don't want to be the ones asking the public to buck up.

However, any nay-sayers on Council holding fast to "parks" as the land designation should and acknowledge purchase is the only other viable option.

Forget land preservation superheroes, a 20/20 windfall, CRA TIFF funds or magic-money grants - park supporters, environmental groups and the city itself has had 11 years to tap those sources. If those funds were there Council wouldn't be facing the decision it needs to make Monday.

Tell Cape taxpayers - all of them - 1) that the property should be a park and they need to come up with the willing buyer price D.R. Horton contracted to pay to make that happen, 2) that they need to dig deeper for the remediation costs to make the site developable as such and 3) then deeper again to build that park that's not only good for "future generations" but those of us paying for it today who won't benefit one whit from an inaccessible greenbelt dubbed "blight."

Be honest: It means a tax increase and a multi-year increase at that, starting next budget year if Council is not also budgeting legal fees for the certain challenge to follow a "no" vote.

The time has come to commit.

Choose one. Emotion? Or fact-based logic?

Call us cold-hearted but we urge logic every time.

-Breeze editorial

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