The Group Golf of Palm Coast has sued the city.
For most property owners, getting a bit behind with the mowing isn't a big deal. But the Group Golf of Palm Coast isn't just any property owner, and its failure to keep the closed Matanzas Woods Golf Course's grass groomed to city standards is now costing it: The city has been levying fines of $500 a day, totaling $97,500 as of a Code Enforcement Board hearing March 9.
The Group Golf hadn't paid up, so the Code Board took the next step: Recommending the city start foreclosure proceedings on the property, as first reported by Toby Tobin at gotoby.com.
"Our goal is to bring the property into compliance, City Manager Jim Landon said in an interview March 23. "We have been more than patient. I think the neighbors would agree that we have been more than patient."
The foreclosure doesn't mean that the property would become the city's, Landon said. Instead, it would be put up in a tax sale through the county, and would go to the highest bidder; the payment from the bid would go directly to the city to cover the accumulated fines.
The city could enter its own bids, but, "The city is not interested in owning the property," Landon said.
Instead, it would hope someone would come forward and maintain the course to the city's standards. The property's current land use designation is recreational, and that would be maintained if there were a foreclosure sale.
The Group Golf still has an opportunity to bring the property up to the city's code standards to avoid the foreclosure, Landon said.
Meanwhile, the Group Golf has filed suit against the city, seeking to stop the proceedings. And, in a March 10 email to City Attorney Bill Reischmann, Group Golf representative Michael Yokan suggested another use for the property: agricultural.
"We have an established organic farming group which is ready to hit the ground running and the sooner we develop the property along those lines the better off all concerned will be," Yokan wrote. "An olive grove, a vineyard, a Christmas tree farm and an apple orchard all with the cart paths being used as walking trails during daylight hours will be a beautiful and beneficial use of the property which will increase area home values.”
"It's in the middle of a neighborhood," Landon said.
Farms — for Christmas trees or anything else — aren't usually established in suburban residential areas.
The Group Golf has contested the way the city's Code Enforcement department has handled its case, writing in an email to the local press that it has been "singled out for unfair treatment by a Code Enforcement Department which has applied an unfair and ever moving standard to our property."
One of the central question on which the Group Golf and the city haven't been able to come to agreement appears a simple one: How high can the grass be before the property is considered out of compliance?
But the city and the course's owners have gone back and forth on that for months.
At an Aug. 24 hearing, city officials told The Group Golf that the grass must be kept under a foot high, and mowed regularly. They'd initially wanted the property's grass to be maintained to golf course standards, but Group Golf co-owner Stephen Richardson objected, saying the property is no longer a golf course. A board member asked Richardson how often he'd planned to cut the grass and he said he'd planned to have it mowed "every time it needs normal cutting."
"I mean, we weren’t going to keep it 2 inches, an inch-and-a-half, but it’s going to be what you’d consider, a standard field of, I don’t know, under a foot?" he said.
“City, would under a foot be satisfactory?” the Code Board member asked.
“It’s fine,” a staff member replied — a line Yokan would later cite in the email to Reischmann. “Our concern is we need a regular schedule for it to get done. I know the citizens. What we don’t want, and what we’re concerned about, is having to deal with kneejerk reaction to, ‘No one’s been out there for weeks.’”
But the city didn't have the power to set the property's mowing schedule, City Attorney Bill Reischmann said at that hearing.
"As a matter of law, that’s not what this board is going to — it doesn’t have the power to do that,” Reischmann said. "What it has the power to do is find you in violation, which I think you’ve acknowledged that the property’s in violation. It’s going to give you X number of days to bring it into compliance. And if you don’t bring it into compliance by that time frame, then there’s going to be some sort of fine that’s going to be imposed."
But at the March 9 hearing, the city cited a different standard: a grass height of four inches.
"The four inch standard cited at yesterday's hearing was never promulgated by the City or agreed to by us," Yokan wrote in the email to Reischmann.
Then, too, there was a disagreement over how weedy patch on the course should be handled.
"Some weeds and patches of weeds on a 200+ acre property are unavoidable," Yokan wrote in the email. "Without conceding that provision even applies to our land I would nonetheless like to meet in part to see if we can agree on what constitutes 'excessive weeds' on an open 200+ acre tract as such an open-ended provision is open to debate. What would constitute excessive weeds in a residential yard should be a far different standard from what would constitute excessive weeds in an open field."
The property's future in unclear. It was appraised at $204,615 in 2015, according to the Flagler County Property Appraiser's Office.
With several local courses operating already, and the city-owned Palm Harbor course struggling to attract enough customers and get them to play enough rounds, making the Matanzas Woods property back into a course — something local residents have advocated for, unsuccessfully, for years — would be expensive and difficult.
Whatever happens with the land, Landon said, "We're hoping it would be something that would be an amenity to the neighborhood."