For this round of golf in Pasco, skip the scorecard and bring legal briefs

Some residents in Gulf Harbors object to paying an assessment to turn a closed golf course into a park and nature preserve.

Article Courtesy of  The Tampa Bay Times

By C.T.Bowen

Published June 2, 2019


NEW PORT RICHEY — There are no gimmes when it comes to the Gulf Harbors golf course.

There hasn’t been a round played there in more than a decade, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t arguing about scores, rules and sandbagging.

Diane Kobernick does a lot of the arguing. She does so in three-minute bytes to county commissioners during the public comment portions of their meetings in the West Pasco Government Center.

“Why are you choosing to deliberately create such discord in our community?’’ she asked last week.

Kobernick is the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the county. She is challenging the county’s acquisition of the shuttered course with the $1.2 million purchase being split among the county’s environmental lands program and 1,791 Gulf Harbors neighbors. They would pay a five-year assessment, estimated at $100 annually, to offset the purchase and then a smaller fee to maintain the land in a park-like setting.

She contends the county paid an inflated price for what turned out to be contaminated land. She also doesn't believe the county followed proper procedures when it established what’s known as a municipal service benefit unit to assess the annual fee.

“There is nothing about this deal that’s been above-board,’’ echoed Ken Dabbs of Floramar Terrace.

Mostly, though, Kobernick doesn’t believe the county’s score-keeping. The county sought a vote among Gulf Harbors property owners, similar to how it does street-paving assessments, to determine support for the acquisition. The county said a majority of those who voted approved of the purchase. Kobernick, who has eight spiral-bound notebooks filled with copies of the ballots, disputes that.

Some residents in the Gulf Harbors neighborhood are opposed to paying an annual assessment to turn the neighborhood's abandoned golf course into a park and preserve. But the president of the Gulf Harbors Civic Association is one of the people who joined the lawsuit on behalf of the county.

Her belief is contradicted by an affidavit from Tammy Odierna, program coordinator for the county’s environmental lands program. Odierna’s initial score was 552 in favor of the acquisition and 393 against. Then she invalidated 27 “yes’’ votes, one of which was miscounted and the rest because they lacked sufficient signatures. Then she tossed out an additional 108 ballots that included written comments. The final tally was 416 in favor and 393 against, or 51-49 percent.

“This is an inaccurate statement,’’ Kobernick said in an interview.

The case, filed in October 2016, is headed for court-ordered mediation. The arguments, however, resurfaced last week when Pasco County initially advertised, then cancelled, a public hearing on adopting a revised version of the special taxing district.

Kobernick’s husband, Mitchell, dissected the proposed tax district ordinance on a web site for Gulf Harbors United, a group of residents supporting Kobernick’s lawsuit. Pasco put out its own information under a frequently-asked-questions format on the county web site.

The purchase has not closed. Under the contract terms, it will not be finalized until the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is satisfied that contamination from golf course chemicals needs no additional remediation. The sellers are on the hook for any clean-up costs, the county said.

That had been one of Kobernick’s leading concerns. She said she started the lawsuit fearing the assessment would turn into an open-ended checkbook for the county to tap for remediation.

Not everyone shares her objections. Nine residents joined the lawsuit as intervenors on behalf of the county. The group included Arthur Haedike, president of the Gulf Harbors Civic Association.

“I think the benefits for the community are awesome. There is not a park anywhere close to us,’’ said Haedike.

Gulf Harbors was one of the original high-end communities in Pasco County, developed more than 50 years ago as a dredge-and-fill project creating canal-front lots leading to channels and the Gulf of Mexico. The 18-hole golf course, which opened in 1971, was a so-called executive course that featured mostly short holes and a par of 60.

By 2003, however, the course faced a potentially different future as Lexington Homes sought to build townhomes there, The plan failed to pass muster with county commissioners.

A county acquisition removes the threat of future residential development. The idea now is for the county’s environmental lands program to preserve 25 acres of salt marsh that attracts rare sandpipers and other migratory waterfowl. The remaining 25 acres would be turned into a passive park, potentially featuring a trail, dog-walking area and picnic site.

Haedike said he hoped a “friends of the park organization’’ could form to coordinate fundraising and add amenities.

“We’re out here, too, and this really affects us,’’ said Haedike. “There’s a lot of people out here who want the park.’’