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Bonita Springs golf course land denied for Conservation 20/20 consideration

DEMOCRACY WATCH: Conservation 20/20
Samantha Roesler
Conservation 20/20’s Conservation Land Acquisition and Stewardship Advisory Committee (CLASAC) discussed whether to pursue the purchase of what used to be the Bonita Springs Golf and Country Club. Barron Collier Companies offered to sell the land for a price between $15 million and $19 million.

Lee County likely will not pursue the possible purchase of more than 100 acres of land in Bonita Springs. This appears to be the outcome after a Conservation 20/20 advisory committee voted against the idea of buying the former Bonita Springs Golf and Country Club.

Conservation 20/20 is Lee County’s environmentally sensitive land acquisition program. Since the late 1990's it has bought more than 30,000 acres of land in Lee. The land purchased by Conservation 20/20 has critical conservation value, and often has positive contributions to local water management, water quality and flood control. Most of the land also provides wildlife habitat.

Conservation 20/20’s Conservation Land Acquisition and Stewardship Advisory Committee (CLASAC) recently discussed if it would like to pursue a purchase of what used to be the Bonita Springs Golf and Country Club. Barron Collier Companies offered to sell the land for a price between $15 million and $19 million.

The 113-acre golf course, which has been closed for almost 20 years, is located in east Bonita Springs and is separated into two parcels by Paradise Road. Developer Barron Collier Companies finalized a purchase of the golf course for $6 million at the end of last year.

CLASAC voiced concerns about potential contamination of the land from intense pesticides and herbicides typically used on a golf course, and potential arsenic in the lakes. This, along with the fact that the golf course has not been properly maintained in years and needs major maintenance, made it difficult for CLASAC to see the benefits of the property.

“It’s a great project idea, it’s something that I think the community at large should be finding active partners to move forward with,” Meredith Budd, regional policy director of the Florida Wildlife Federation, said. “But Conservation 20/20 is a conservation land acquisition program, and this engineer project to be done on an old golf course is simply not in line with the mission and goals of the program.”

CLASAC member Derrick Botana saw educational benefits in buying the land from Barron Collier.

“It can be used as an example for the state to properly filter water and since the county said there could possibly be arsenic in there, then it can be a case study for FGCU’s Water School,” Botana said.

eYes On 20/20 is a group of many former county employees that meets to study and discuss nominated land and management plans of existing preserves. Group member Holly Schwartz recognizes the importance of advocating for water quality but questions whether the price tag associated with the land is worth it.

“With this one, it was a really tough conversation that we had amongst ourselves, we very much support the need for water quality,” Schwartz said. “But the fact that this parcel just had a rezone with entitlements added, which would increase the cost of the parcel tremendously, is one of the biggest concerns we have.”

Julia Baxter lives next to the golf course. She is a leader of a group of residents that is speaking out against building homes on the property. Baxter and other nearby homeowners say they're fighting for water quality and management. They say many properties around the golf course experience flooding after large storms.

“I don’t feel that I’m going after it for me, nor are many of the other people,” Baxter said. “We’re more concerned with the overall plan of water management because this area floods.”

Her impression from the CLASAC discussion was that most members were too focused on a potential $19 million purchase to see how buying the land could improve the lives of the local homeowners.

“I believe that number totally blinded some people, they’re used to paying smaller dollar amounts,” Baxter said. “When somebody said $19 million, it just shut down.”

It didn’t take CLASAC much more than 10 minutes to decide against buying what used to be the Bonita Springs Golf and Country Club. Once a motion was on the table to deny the purchase, Botana spoke out that it was too soon to shoot down the idea.

“I would like to say it’s a little premature that we automatically just make a motion to not even possibly look into this,” Botana said. “This is a great opportunity for southern Lee County, I think sometimes CLASAC looks a little more towards northern Lee County.”

The committee voted 11-2 against buying the land.

“I think if they would’ve at least delayed, they could say ‘we could contribute this much and see if we can get more out of another department,’ because there are other departments and our group found some grants,” Julia Baxter said. “There are sources of money, but it takes time to find.”

The property can be nominated again for consideration for purchase by Conservation 20/20 upon the will of Barron Collier, and if CLASAC can find other sources of funding support. In the meantime Baxter and other residents in the fight against development said they will continue to stand their ground.

“It’s very hard to keep going, all the way home from the meeting it was like ‘I’m done, I can’t do this anymore,’” Baxter said. “Then you sleep on it and get on your computer the next day and you think, this doesn’t seem right.”

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