Political Links | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Political Links

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.