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This is a story about two Fort Lauderdale golf courses. One is the Coral Ridge Country Club, a tidy, 52-year-old gem of a course where Sam Snead and Ben Hogan once dazzled fans as the city's upper crust sipped martinis in the sedate privacy of a clubhouse, with delectable panoramas of manicured greens. The other is the American Golfers Club, a compact public course where unschooled kids and senior citizens used to flail from green to green.

The two courses sit side by side, the princess and the pauper, on 200 acres of prime Coral Ridge real estate.

About two years ago, a group of investors bought the whole kit and caboodle: golf courses, clubhouse, pro shops, plus a few vacant lots on the perimeter. At the time, the purchase was portrayed as a grand philanthropic gesture to bring the fabled but slightly frayed Coral Ridge course — designed in 1954 by legendary golfing architect Robert Trent Jones — back to its former luster.

Then, a few months ago, the investors unveiled their plan.

The private club would indeed get a loving touch-up, with a new clubhouse, new trees, extended fairways, and upgraded drainage system, extending its life as a civilized, gated venue for the wealthy. But in place of the American Golfer's course, where the hoi polloi once displayed their doubtful driving and putting skills? The investors proposed 61 individual homes.

Obviously, some folks are going to make money out of the grand plan. Nobody's saying how much each new residence will sell for, but the investors group acknowledges that similar homes in the upscale neighborhood are now going for about $1 million.

Tailpipe can't really challenge the group's assertion that American Golfers Club, which has been closed since Wilma tore down most of the course's trees and protective screens, is wasted space. A quick tour of the place the other day with the investment group's managing partner, J.J. Sehlke, showed it to be in sad shape indeed, with muddy pools and brown foliage.

Still, those who want to keep the place running say that, in its pre-Wilma prime, it was drawing golfers at a rate of about 40,000 rounds a year. Although the 130-acre country-club side of the land was reopened within three weeks, the 70-acre American has been allowed to deteriorate, with only a lackluster driving range still in use.

"I can tell you," says retired judge Ray Novak, who opposes the development, "I've lived on the course for five years, and from morning to night, American Golfers was used."

Sehlke, though, dismisses the notion that American has been well-used. "There's a short window there — January, February, maybe March," he says. "A lot of Canadians came." Usage drops off dramatically in the hot weather, he contends.

But the real hot issue now is: Will the socially and politically prominent owners get the limousine treatment when they try to get a zoning change from "green/park space" to residential use?

Most cities don't give up their green space or park land without a huge fight. "Park land is a precious resource in our society, particularly in urban centers," Novak says. "You don't give it up easily."

The investors are led by majority owner Phil Smith, an auto-dealer mogul. Others include prominent lawyers Norman Tripp and Matt Morrall (son of former Dolphins quarterback Earl Morrall), builder Terry Stiles, businessman Mike Dayhoff, Sehlke, and Broward County Commissioner Jim Scott. It's Scott's presence that's raising eyebrows lately. The commissioner, who's up for reelection September 5, promises to recuse himself from any country-club business that comes before the commission. But who will talk for Coral Ridge? And if he talks to colleagues behind the scene, whose interests will he represent?

Scott — a wealthy lawyer who also serves as a lobbyist for AutoNation, the nation's largest auto dealer; and HCA, a private hospital conglomerate — didn't return Tailpipe's calls. But he has described himself as "a very minor partner" (though in filings with the Florida Secretary of State, he's listed as the group's vice president).

Scott's assurances aren't enough for his opponent, Ken Keechl.

"I think Jim Scott has put himself in a position with an inherent conflict of interest," Keechl told the 'Pipe. "Public service means serving the public, not serving yourself. It's quite clear that he was offered ownership in the company solely because of his role on the County Commission."

Sehlke says the plan has a lot of support in the surrounding community, but Jason Ulbrich, who serves as chairman of the local homeowners' association's green space committee, sent out a survey to 2,500 Coral Ridge residents. Of the 287 who responded, more than 90 percent were against developing the golf course.

 

For now, the future of the conjoined pair of golf courses is in the hands of governmental bodies (the Fort Lauderdale City Commission has asked for revisions) and the voters. If residents of District 4, the county's upscale district of beachside cities, are thinking green when they vote next Tuesday, Jim Scott could be in trouble.

Do You Believe in Magic?

Representatives of a Utah company blew into Fort Lauderdale last week, like barnstorming medicine men, claiming to have a little piece of magic in a cloud-and-sky-decorated trailer parked outside the Broward County Library. The company, AquaMagic, says its technology "creates water out of thin air." In the trailer was what seemed to be a giant dehumidifier that filters air, condenses it to make water, then filters the result.

The 'Pipe took a swig the other day and lived to tell the story.

Company President Jonathan Wright, a tall, gentle fellow, stands by in a blue company button-down shirt. He fills clear plastic cups for passersby. At least two of them agree: AquaMagic water tastes exactly like, well, real water.

"Yeah! Tastes good!" says Julie Aikman, a Broward County employee who's carrying a banana.

Joshua Washington, who works across the street, wanders up, Newport in one hand, coffee mug in the other.

"Water made from air?" he reads. "It's produced from rain water?"

"The air," Wright corrects gently. "You know, the humidity in the air?"

Washington takes a sip. "Nice," he pronounces.

Wright makes a pitch in the mayor's office.

"We've got an exciting new technology that can help with preparing the community for disaster — " he begins.

Mayor Ben Graber interrupts him, with the brusqueness of an official who's accustomed to hearing pitches.

"I'm a scientist," he says. "I understand the process."

He wants facts. How do you avoid pollutants? Electrostatic filter. How much does the machine cost? $35,000. How is it powered? Gas. What's the cost? Thirty cents for a gallon of water.

Graber sounds impressed. "Very, very interesting," he says. He wants his own taste, but he's not making any hasty purchases. In fact, none of the cities that AquaMagic has hit thus far on a 183-stop "hurricane tour" have bitten (though they've sipped). Some are getting grants and some are trying to find the money, Wright claims.

"We're at the cusp of a fair bit of action," he says.

Big problem, though. A Miami company, Air Water, which is peddling what seems to be the same machine, and inventor James Reidy are both poised to do some legal sparring.

The air-into-water industry has been mired in legal troubles practically from the beginning, when Reidy drank water out of his dehumidifier and deemed it pretty good. Reidy sold his patent rights to several companies, the latest being Air Water Corp. in Miami, and copycat companies have sprung up around the country. But Wright won't get sucked into that dispute. He insists that AquaMagic uses totally different technology and won't be caught in Reidy's web of patent-infringing imitators.

Like, You Know, Conversation

There's a wrong time, there's a wrong place, and there's even worse than that — like a beered-up Patrick Ryan Nelson dropping by a party at the home of Wilton Manors Mayor Scott Newton around 10 p.m. July 15.

The hefty, 22-year-old Nelson explained later that he was in the neighborhood and decided to pop in to say hello to the mayor's daughter, Staci. Instead, he encountered her 18-year-old brother, also named Patrick.

The two Patricks' accounts of their interaction differ, but the result is undisputed: In front of the house, Nelson and Newton exchanged nasty words, Nelson got out of his truck, the two shoved each other, Nelson fixed the smaller Newton in some kind of mild headlock, Newton's girlfriend ran inside to get the mayor, and out with the mayor came a phalanx of guests, including some off-duty police officers. Then Nelson shoved one, David Jones, who made short work of, in the parlance of police reports, "escorting" Pat Nelson to the ground.

Wilton Manors Police Officer Gary Blocker responded to a call for back-up and found fellow WMPD Officer Jones and Fort Lauderdale Police Officer Don Solinger holding Nelson on the ground.

Asked by Blocker who would win in a fight between the Patricks, Patrick Newton's girlfriend, Stephanie Scott, said, "Not to be mean to my boyfriend, but I believe Nelson would have taken it."

But her boyfriend did have protection that night. In his statement to Blocker, the mayor's son casually referred to officer Jones as "D.J." and officer Solinger as "one of my dad's friends, Don."

Nelson didn't do much to clear his name in the station afterward. He signed away his Miranda rights, waiving his right to an attorney, and explained to Blocker that he was just trying to ask the mayor's son about his sister. "I was like, 'What's up?'" his sworn statement reads. "Where's whatever Stacy blah-blah-blah. And he's like, 'I don't know.' And I was like, 'Dude, what's going on?' Blah-blah-blah, and he was like, you know, conversation..." He later tells the officer that he has had "probably about, I don't know, a six-pack" to drink that night.

 

He complained of injuries to his face and arms; the cop assured him they were no more than scrapes and dirt. His real problem now is the battery charges he faces for the altercation.

When Tailpipe reached Nelson, he begged off: "I don't feel like talking about it. I just feel like it's pretty much dumb." The 'Pipe thinks that's what Nelson said. He might have ended the sentence with done. But, really, it sounded a lot more like dumb.

—As told to Edmund Newton


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