Louise Hawthorne’s hands were shaking as she held the piece of paper containing her talking points at an Oct. 13 community meeting regarding the potential redevelopment of the Windermere Country Club golf course.
The shaking wasn’t from the nerves of standing in front of more than 200 of her fellow Windermere Country Club neighbors, who were there to speak against a proposal to turn the golf course into 95 single-family homes.
“I am so angry,” she told representatives for developer and current golf-course owner Bryan DeCunha. “(If this redevelopment is approved) our community is damaged, our ecosystem is damaged, our water is damaged, our property values are damaged, (and) only one person is going to benefit from this. … Shame on you.”
Hawthorne was just one of more than 20 residents who pleaded with Orange County officials, including District 1 County Commissioner S. Scott Boyd, not to allow the redevelopment to proceed. In accordance to the 1986 agreements between the county and original golf-course owners, the county owns the development rights for the Windermere Country Club golf course. Those rights were given to the county as part of the club’s County Estate Cluster District designation to preserve the land as “permanent open space” in exchange for the option to build smaller lot sizes elsewhere on the property.
DeCunha, who purchased the Windermere Country Club in April 2011, now is asking the county to relinquish those rights and approve a project that would develop the golf course into 95 single-family homes.
DeCunha was not present for the meeting, but his attorney, Paul Chipok, said the golf course’s declining membership and usage are the catalysts behind the development proposal.
“The existing golf-course operation is no longer viable,” Chipok said. “There’s major infrastructure improvements necessary in excess of $3 million, and that’s not going to occur.
“There’s minimal support from the surrounding properties,” he said. “Of the 147 homes that surround this golf course, only seven of those homes are members of the golf course. And of the golf course itself, there’s only 28 full-time golf members. That’s not enough to sustain a golf course. The golf course is closing on April 18, 2016.”
However, some residents believe the golf course’s decline is merely the product of DeCunha’s plan all along — to close the course and redevelop the land as homes.
“In April 2011, this developer purchased this property knowing full well he was not purchasing the development rights,” Hawthorne said. “He purchased it for $2,450,000 — 155 acres. Do the math. Do you think he was purchasing development property? Absolutely not.”
Mel Wright, a Windermere resident for 30 years, had been a member of the Windermere Country Club since 1991.
“In the 1990s … we all had the best time at Windermere Country Club,” he said. “It was a great club. ... I bought in Waterford Pointe in 2001 … because I wanted to be near that club. And I stayed a member of that club even though it’s been run into ground. I kept paying my money because I feared this day would come. If I kept paying my monthly dues, maybe he (DeCunha) wouldn’t do anything bad with that property. And here we are.
“You can make money running a country club and a golf course,” Wright said. “You cannot make $10 million selling 200 houses, and that’s what’s going on. And the only people on the planet who could let it happen are our elected officials. It’s Orange County’s right — not theirs — to do that.”
Robert McChesney, a Windermere Country Club resident, performs management and consultant work in the golf industry. McChesney said officials at Windermere Country Club “threw him out of the club for complaining too much” about the customer service and property conditions.
“Mr. Bryan DeCunha is a failed businessman,” he said. “He did nothing to improve this club. We started with 180 members when he took over this club, a brand new golf course, new greens, new bunkers, new tees. We have 30 members left. If it’s $500 a month average (per member) … that’s $720,000 to $800,000 a year in membership that he’s lost. That’s your full maintenance budget. Mr. DeCunha has made some terrible leadership decisions. How can you trust this man to now run a multi-million-dollar development business?”
Boyd reminded residents DeCunha has a right to go through the application process and that the community meeting was the first of several steps before the project comes before the County Commission.
“I put it on them (developers) as their responsibility to make sure they work as hard as they can with all you (residents) to try to come up with a … compatible format for the development if it goes through,” he said. “If they don’t do their job with you … it’s going to make their time in front of me extremely difficult. … Your input tonight is extremely important, because they’re hearing it. And they know what they have to deal with if they’re going to even feel like they’re winning any of you over. That’s on them.”
Boyd said he expects the review process to take about four to six months before the project comes before the County Commission.
Leigh Ann Dyal, president of the Windermere Country Club Homeowners Association, spearheaded the battle against the golf course’s redevelopment.
“One year ago, I went around and had a petition signed,” she said. “There are 147 homes in Windermere Country Club. One-hundred-thirty-six … signed the petition to not develop.
“Bryan DeCunha is a Canadian developer, and he’s come into our community to disrupt the integrity of what we’ve lived for,” she said. “I have lived in the town of Windermere for 50 years. ... I just feel like he’s just disregarded our lives and our fragile ecosystem.”
Hawthorne, who has lived on the golf course for more than 25 years, said she never imagined this could happen.
“This is not development land; it is dedicated green space,” she said. “The legal definition of green space to a government body carries with it responsibility of protection. This developer just purchased the right to operate a golf course. He cannot develop the property unless Orange County relinquishes (its) development rights.
“If the golf course closes, I’m confident our community can come up with an alternative plan that does not damage the adjacent property owners, our environment and our community,” Hawthorne said. “I am asking our Orange County government representatives to honor their responsibilities.”
Contact Michael Eng at [email protected].
GOLF ON THE DECLINE?
According to a 2015 study funded by R&A and 15 golf companies and conducted by the National Golf Foundation, there were 34,011 golf facilities in operation in 206 country around the world. Of those, nearly half — 15,372 — are located in the United States.
The study reported the U.S. experienced golf-course building booms from the late 1960s through the 1980s and again from the early 1990s to the early 2000s.
In recent years, oversupply has caused a market correction, resulting in the closing of 108 facilities in North America from 2010 to 2014.
However, the study reported the U.S. has 153 golf projects currently in various stages of development.
According to Orange County Property Appraiser records, Windermere Country Club has had four owners in its history.
SALE DATE: March 5, 1999
SALE PRICE: $4,895,200
BUYER: Linkscorp Florida Windermere LLC
SELLER: Florida Windermere Inc
SALE DATE: Dec. 1, 2009
SALE PRICE: $4,503,400
BUYER: Spe Go Holdings Inc.
SELLER: Linkscorp Fla. Windermere LLC
SALE DATE: April 29, 2011
SALE PRICE: $2,174,100
BUYER: Windermere Country Club LLC
SELLER: Spe Go Holdings Inc.