The city gave The Golf Group two weeks to clean up the overgrown course or pay a $500 per day fine.
A little more than two weeks ago, Palm Coast gave Matanzas Woods Golf Course co-owner Stephen Richardson, of The Golf Group, an ultimatum: Clean up the course within 14 days, or pay a fine of $500 a day for the city to do it.
The property will be reinspected on Aug. 24. If it doesn’t meet city standards, the city will fine the owners $500 per day. It won’t be maintained as a golf course, with golf course grass. But the vegetation is to be mowed regularly and kept under a foot high.
The city’s Code Enforcement Department summoned Richardson to an Aug. 5 hearing, demanding action on the overgrown course. It has been drawing local residents’ complaints for years, but has changed hands, leaving the city struggling to determine whom to cite or fine.
At the hearing, Richardson told the city that he’d received its notices of violation and had just hired a company, on Aug. 3, to cut the property’s grass on a four-to-eight-week schedule.
A city staff member said that was unacceptable: The city wanted The Golf Group to honor an agreement that had been in place with a previous owner that the grass would be cut five days a week, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Those were the city’s minimum standards, he said.
Richardson objected. “The minimum standards are set for it as a golf course,” he said. “It is not a golf course.” And other vacant properties within the city aren’t maintained to such high standards, he said.
The issue was resolved at the hearing by Bill Reischmann, the city attorney.
“The most important thing is for the city to state very clearly what the property owner will have to do to bring it into code compliance,” he said.
Code Enforcement Director Barbara Grossman reviewed the standards they were looking for: a full-time employee on the property scheduled Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the holes mowed on a daily basis with weekends used as catch-up days for rainy weather during the week, and all public complaints directed to a golf course superintendent.
“So the minimum standards as I understand it are the ones that were agreed upon between the city and the prior owner to comply with that section,” Reischmann said.
“That’s correct,” she replied.
“All right, those are the standards that the prior owners agreed to members of the board,” Reischmann said. “That does not mean that the city has the right, in my legal opinion, to impose those same minimum standards on this property owner. What the city does have the right, in my legal opinion, is that this property owner comply with the code.”
Nor could it tell The Golf Group exactly how it must go about its maintenance, as long as the property’s appearance is maintained to city standards.
Reischmann asked the city to tell Richardson and the board what it was looking for in the property: “Not how he does it, but what he does — what’s it have to look like?”
A city staff member replied that all of the holes would have to be cut from the T-box to the hole, that storm drainage would have to be maintained, “and that’s basically it,” he said. But, he said, the city’s expectation that the grass be cut five days a week was based on “what has worked in the past,” he said. “If you want to go to a four-to-eight week schedule, the growth will be high.”
A board member asks what the city would do if The Golf Group doesn’t maintain the course that way. “Let’s say he says, ‘You know what, I’m not going to do this, it’s not a golf course, I’m not going to go hole by hole,’ and the city is then compelled to go out there an perform the cutting,” she said. “Is the city going to go hole by hole, maintain the lakes, do the drainage system and send the bill to him?”
The city could do that, Reischmann said. But, he said “It is my understanding that the city is not going to do that.” What it would do is start a $500 per day fine running. But The Golf Group needs to know, he said, what the property needs to look like to keep that fine from accruing.
“If it doesn’t look like a golf course, is that going to cause the fine? And I think the answer is no,” Reischmann said. “Is it going to be if whether it’s 2 inches high, or 3 inches high? That sort of thing. That’s the test.”
A code enforcement staff member said that he’d recently checked the property, and one hole had been mowed and was clear of weeds and overgrowth from the tee to the hole. That’s what the entire property needs to look like, he said.
A Code Board member asked Richardson exactly what he’d contracted with the landscaping company for and how often the grass would be cut.
“Well, every time it needs normal cutting,” Richardson said. “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?”
“City, would under a foot be satisfactory?” the Code Board member asked.
“It’s fine,” a staff member replied. “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 there’s a process for dealing with that, Reischmann said. If the property isn’t kept up, the fine accrues, “and that’s the hammer.”
Richardson said his concern wasn’t with the appearance standards, but with the city’s demand for a five-day-a-week mowing schedule.
“And I’m saying 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.”
The board unanimously accepted the city’s recommendation to find the property in violation and give The Golf Group 14 days to get it up to standard before a $500 a day fine starts accruing.