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WHEN THEY WANT TO BUILD HOUSES ON YOUR GOLF COURSE

For several years now in south Florida, builders have been snapping up golf courses and converting them to housing developments. This of course has led to legal and zoning fights by neighborhoods who are none too happy with having their golf course vistas replaced by homes, townhomes and apartments. Until the pandemic, golf as a sport was seeing dwindling numbers of players, and many golf courses were in the red. However, golf has seen a resurgence in south Florida as more people move here from the Northeast and elsewhere, and tee times are becoming much harder to get during the season. Thus, the economic argument that builders and golf course owners make that golf courses are no longer profitable isn’t so true anymore, but the claims of unprofitability are still made in most every application to rezone a golf course for development. Golf course conversions can be attacked in the rezoning process. The developer and golf course owner must file an application in the county or city where the course is located requesting the necessary zoning and land use changes to convert the golf course to residential development. Chances are, the developer and the land use experts it hires can meet the technical requirements of the zoning code, and the zoning staff will recommend approval of the application. County and City Commissions, however, have discretion to approve or disapprove rezoning applications. There is enough gray area in zoning that decisions can often come down to politics. If a neighborhood bans together and makes a sustained effort to stop the golf course conversion, sometimes it works. This requires the neighborhood showing up in large numbers at commission meetings. Homeowners must also meet commissioners individually to lobby for their vote. Zoning challenges are not easy; developers have the money and resources, and they often have pull with county and city officials. In addition to an up or down vote, there are other angles that are worked in golf course conversions. Elected officials want developers to have community outreach, to work with neighborhoods to reach a consensus for the new development. Developers will often offer large donations to the neighborhood homeowners association for community improvements to garner support. Also, developers will come in asking for the moon, but will scale back the intensity of the project to improve compatibility with the existing neighborhood. Legal challenges to golf course conversions are made in court, by filing a lawsuit to enjoin the new development. Under Florida law, a property owner in general has a right to the free use his or her property, limited by land use and government restrictions. Thus, if a golf course has an underlying land use or zoning for development, and there are no other restrictions for use of the property, then a court will not have the authority to block a golf course conversion. However, sometimes there are other restrictions limiting the use of golf course property. Primary among these are recorded deed restrictions expressly limiting the use of the property to a golf course. Such deed restrictions are typically upheld, unless there has been a substantial change in the character of the neighborhood. One caveat; a deed restriction can prevent the use of the property for anything else but a golf course, but the golf course owner can’t be forced to keep the golf course operational. Also, if a golf course is part of a platted subdivision, then the plat may have restrictions limiting the use of golf course property to a golf course, or other recreational uses. A lot owner who buys into a platted subdivision acquires implied rights arising from the plat, and those rights cannot be taken away without the lot owners’ consent. One other possible restriction to halt a golf course conversion would be if there is a contractual agreement to limit the use of the golf course, even if unrecorded, that is known to the current owner. For instance, a prior owner of the golf course may have agreed in writing with a homeowner’s association to always use the property as a golf course. If the current golf course owner has notice of the agreement, then the owner may be bound by it.
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