Golf Meets Politics

Jim Scott's Little Investment Is a Hot Topic in His District

This should have been a piece of cake for County Commissioner Jim Scott. It was candidates' night last Thursday at a meeting of the Coral Ridge Association, and Scott, who has represented the area for 30 years in one capacity or another, appeared to be chillin' with his Republican homies.

Scott, a thin, leathery man with pumpkin-colored hair, gave a breezy account of his political career — 24 years in the State Senate, including two years as its president; county commissioner since 2002; a "lonely" voice for fiscal austerity and lower property taxes on the commission. He finished with a recital of a poem by G.K. Chesterton ("Chester-on," Scott called him), suggesting that Jim Scott, for one, would never be "a wrecker who roams the town, content with the labor of tearing down."

Then Scott's Democratic opponent, Ken Keechl, got up and, in the parlance of one audience member, "tore him a new one."

photo by Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images
Alvaro Diaz-Rubio

In an election season which has focused largely on national issues, Keechl and his allies in District 4 of the County Commission are using a controversial Coral Ridge development plan to make an unexpected horserace out of this local campaign. The thing that appears to have Scott sweating bullets is the publicity about his involvement in the Coral Ridge Country Club Development Plan.

As Tailpipe reported two months ago, there's a plan to restore the country club golf course to its former glory, updating its clubhouse, giving it new trees and extended fairways, taking it back to the days when Sam Snead and Ben Hogan played there. This would be accomplished partially with revenues from the conversion of the American Golfers Club — the Country Club's low-rent twin to the west — to an upscale housing development. A group of investors (or "a bunch of speculators," as some characterize them) who bought the two golf courses two years ago wants to turn the public course, where duffers without piles of money could flail away at reasonable prices, into a site for 61 new homes, each going for about $1 million.

The idea upset a lot of the country club's neighbors, worried about new traffic from all those homes and the loss of green space in their community. Then they learned that the investors included not only auto-dealer Phil Smith, prominent lawyers Norman Tripp and Matt Morrall, builder Terry Stiles, businessman Mike Dayhoff, and managing partner J.J. Sehlke. They also included Commissioner Scott. That upset the neighbors even more and got Keechl into the race.

It's all private money they're talking about here, of course. The golf courses are privately-owned, and the investors are asking for no public funds. But they do need the approval of both the Fort Lauderdale City Commission and the County Commission in order to change the site's zoning from "green/park space" to residential.

According to Keechl, even if Scott recuses himself on that issue, his mere presence on the County Commission represents an "unfavorable advantage" for the plan's opponents.

"It's not appropriate to say you're going to recuse yourself when you're looking at eight colleagues [voting on an issue that Scott has a financial interest in]," he said.

Scott describes his investment as, well, a public-spirited one. "This is the story of 'no good deed goes unpunished,' " Scott said. He got involved at the behest of the former owners — the heirs of the late golfing architect Robert Trent Jones, who designed the Country Club course. "I live 50 yards from the golf course," Scott said. "They were telling me that they couldn't find a local owner to preserve this crown jewel." He invested — "several hundred thousand," he told the 'Pipe after the meeting — after the country club was "devastated" by Hurricane Wilma.

But Keechl notes that, while the country club has been returned to normal since then, the more pedestrian American Golfers Club has been abandoned by its owners.

"All of a sudden, the water didn't work," Keechl said, explaining how the public course has turned brown with neglect.

A woman asked Scott if he was prepared to divest himself of his investment as an ethical gesture? Scott seemed uncertain. "I would consider it if I thought I had any role in it [the development] that would make a difference," said Scott, who is listed in state filings as the investment group's vice-president.

This battered cylinder is taking no sides here; he just notes a surprising depth of emotion at a time when most local issues are about as compelling as discussions of water treatment and waste removal contracts. There was a visceral reaction from the 100 or so people at the meeting to Keechl's blunt attack ("You're wrong, you shouldn't have done this"). Supporters of Keechl (who had to handle an ethical question of their own regarding the candidate's law firm's involvement in a securities fraud) say that he's getting vocal support from Oakland Park, Wilton Manors, and other communities within District 4.

Will it be enough to topple a long-term incumbent? We'll see next week.

Frog in Winter

A local neighborhood publication recently divulged the secret to humane removal of the toxic Bufo marinus toad. In its "Nursery Notes" gardening column, September's Lake Ridge News, with a circulation of 1,500, suggested that readers rid themselves of the warty pad-crashers " placing them in a plastic container or bag in the freezer for three days and then burying the carcasses."

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