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Plant City report on closed golf course may come next week

PLANT CITY — The city is losing patience with the owners of Walden Lake Golf and Country Club regarding the condition of a closed 18-hole course.

Even the owners of the country club, which once attracted celebrities such as Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, agree the closed course and its still-operating sister course have seen better days.

City officials are upset that parts of the shuttered The Hills course are overgrown. They want something done, even if it means toughening standards.

“It looks like caca,” Plant City Commissioner Mike Sparkman said. “It’s only going to get worse when spring comes and things start growing again.”

A report due out as early as next week will detail the city’s code enforcement efforts and whether the city needs to tighten its laws to force more intensive maintenance of the course that Visions Golf LLC closed last summer.

The code enforcement issues are playing out as an application by Visions Golf for rezoning the closed course for development winds its way through City Hall. Visions wants zoning that would allow developers to build hundreds of single-family homes, town homes, condominiums and villas and a 90- to 120-unit assisted living facility.

City code enforcement supervisor Dennis Sweeney said Visions Golf officials have been cooperative when he has approached them about complaints. However, city codes only require a 100-foot-wide maintained buffer from lot lines of homes. The parts of the shuttered course that are more than 100 feet from someone’s yard are reverting to their natural state, and he can’t do anything about it unless the law is changed.

“Nature is taking back what man has created,” he said.

Sparkman said he doesn’t fault Sweeney and says the city needs to reconsider the 100-foot buffer.

City Manager Greg Horwedel said he expects the report to say whether the course can be considered a public nuisance.

The report will detail “what we’ve been doing and what we might want to do moving forward,” said Assistant City Manager Bill McDaniel, who supervises the code enforcement department.

Sparkman doesn’t think the city should wait any longer. “I think the community has bent over backwards to accommodate them, and now it’s time for action,” he said.

Visions Golf managing partner Steve Mercer said he has done everything possible to work with the city and has responded to every complaint, including a recent one to remove dead trees that were near homes on Country Club Court on the still-open sister course known as The Lakes.

“We understand the frustration. ... I don’t know what else we can do as a business,” he said.

Leaders of a homeowners group who have organized opposition to the development plans couldn’t be reached for comment.

Visions Golf, owned by a half-dozen investors, has struggled financially since buying the country club and its two courses in 2006.

Visions Golf wants to sell about 130 acres of its 300 acres to pay off debt, replace the aging clubhouse, rework the remaining golf course and have money left over for operations.

Tampa lawyer Ron Weaver, who represents Visions Golf, said the planned development will be first-class and generate hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in wages and taxes. The surviving course will be restored to its former splendor, he said.

“It will increase the value of everybody’s property in Walden Lake,” he said.

Weaver said Visions Golf has strived to cooperate with the city, including by signing up to irrigate with reclaimed water when the city needed it as a customer to qualify for a $1.5 million grant. The company also allowed city crews to store equipment during a drainage improvement project in the Wedgewood neighborhood, he said.

“We want to be good neighbors. We want to be good citizens and work with the city and residents,” he said.

Better days are ahead, Weaver said.

He recalled attending a Christian conference at the country club where Landry, the legendary NFL coach, was one of the guests.

“Walden Lake used to be the crown jewel in this area,” Weaver said. “We want to restore it to its grandeur.”

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Twitter: @dnicholsonTBO

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