A group working to see the old golf course acreage retain its parks and recreation designation are cautiously optimistic about the possibility of a land swap now in the research stage by city staff.
Cape Coral City Manager John Szerlag has ordered an appraisal to determine whether it would be feasible to propose some sort of land swap for the 175-acre site off Palm Tree Boulevard where a national home builder proposes to construct 500 homes.
To that end Szerlag told those attending Monday's city council meeting that he has had conversations with D.R. Horton executive Jonathon M. Pentecost.
"Obviously we're very encouraged that the city is looking at options for the golf course," said Barth Wolf, president of Save Our Recreation Inc., a grass-roots non-profit formed to oppose development of the golf course site.
There have been a number of proposals for the acreage since the golf course closed several years ago, including a land-swap proposal bandied about in 2013.
That exchange included talks of trading the city-owned Academic Village acreage in the north Cape for the privately owned property in the South Cape redevelopment district.
Those discussions went nowhere and this go-around, D.R. Horton, which has the site under contract, has denied any interest in any exchange in the wake of the city announcement.
Still, there is hope.
"We're cautiously optimist, we're hopeful," Wolf said. "We'd like to be part of any solution."
The staff-initiated effort has been working for weeks since Szerlag polled Council members individually to gauge interest in putting an exchange on the table.
Officials confirmed last Wednesday that city staff is researching the feasibility of an exchange of 320 acres it acquired in the north Cape as part of a $13 million multi-parcel land buy in 2012 for the old golf course site.
"Nothing may come of it but there is an attempt internally to try to help," said Cape Coral City Councilmember Rana Erbrick in a telephone interview last Wednesday.
As tentatively proposed - the key word being tentatively - the city is exploring a trade that would exchange the property D.R. Horton has under contract with land the city owns off Kismet Parkway and Burnt Store Road, according to Councilmember Richard Leon, who has been working with Szerlag and D.R. Horton representatives.
The parcel being evaluated does not include the Seven Islands.
"It's an ongoing idea that's at the very beginning," Leon said last week. "I want people to understand that, the very beginning stages."
D.R. Horton signed its purchase contract with Florida Gulf Venture to buy the former golf course acreage about a year ago. The sale, however, is contingent on the city changing the site's future land use designation from parks and recreation to residential, something nearby property owners strongly oppose.
The idea of floating a land swap came up about a month and a half ago after Councilmember Jim Burch and he had some discussion on the dais concerning possible options that could address the concerns of those urging the city to leave the golf course site "green," Leon said.
Out of that came the concept of a land exchange that could benefit all parties.
"I know the city manager has asked D.R.Horton whether a land swap was possible and D.R. Horton, being a business, said anything is possible," Leon said. "So the city is currently getting appraisals for some of the city owned property in the north Cape."
How - and whether - any land exchange option actually becomes an offer to the builder, which says it remains committed to the original project, rests on that appraisal.
"It really comes down to what is the appraisal on that Burnt Store property and if D.R. Horton is willing to swap properties," Leon said. "It's got to come down to the numbers, and it's got to make sense."
Erbrick took a similar view.
"It's worth exploring," Erbrick said. "Once again, you have to talk value because ultimately it's going to come down to dollars, what are we willing to pay for the golf course."
And any exchange would be a form of payment, she emphasized.
"It's still tax dollars that would be doing this, it's just a different method of getting there," Erbrick said.
The north Cape site in question has future land use designations of mixed use and residential with a very small area, perhaps an acre or two, designated as park, according to Leon. The land is not currently served by city utilities while the golf course parcel in the South Cape, in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, can be readily connected to the existing water and sewer mains.
Among the questions unanswered is not only whether a land swap is possible, but how much of each parcel might be included in any deal to be brought forward and whether the extension of utilities might be part of any proposal, Leon said.
Still, there has been some discussion concerning how a swap might benefit the north Cape, both in terms of existing neighborhoods and planned projects, such as The Resort at Tranquility Lakes, a planned upscale RV park on an 188-acre tract at the southwest intersection of Durden Parkway and Burnt Store Road.
"They're working on all the details which would be very good for the people out there," Leon said of issues discussed.
Regardless of any interest that may have been expressed privately, D.R. Horton's public position is that the builder remains committed to securing the land use change for the golf course site and is proceeding with its plans to build on the property, which is zoned for single family homes.
"DR Horton is proud to be the largest builder in the City of Cape Coral and is honored to be a part of the growth that city leadership has cultivated in recent years. Accordingly, we are on the front line to recognize the strong demand for new housing in the heart of Cape Coral and walkable to the City's central business district and future Bimini Basin. Therefore, we are not interested in a land swap and look forward to progressing this high quality infill community," said Pentecost, whose title is division president, SWFL Broker, D.R. Horton Realty Inc., in a prepared statement received last Thursday in response to a query from The Breeze.
That position was reiterated via email Tuesday following Szerlag's announcement.
A followup question, as to whether D.R. Horton has changed its position, understood by the city as having an interest in exploring the option, went unanswered.
The golf course site was once part of the original Cape Coral Country Club, built by the city's founders, Gulf American Corp.
It was later renamed The Golf Club by new owners and then sold again in 2006 to Florida Gulf Ventures Inc., a division of Ryan Companies U.S.
Florida Gulf Ventures closed it, saying the company could not make money on golf and pursued development alternatives.
Development plans for the site, though, failed to move forward after the city denied Florida Gulf Ventures' land use change request for a mixed use development to include commercial and residential units in 2009.
That decision was upheld by the courts, primarily based on the mixed use component of the developer request.
D.R. Horton's land use request is for single-family residential, which matches the existing zoning for the acreage.
The development planned for the former golf course site is not the only project D.R. Horton has in the works in the Cape.
In November, D.R. Horton purchased The Villages at Entrada, a fully permitted 317-acre, 721-lot single-family subdivision in the north Cape between Del Prado Boulevard North and N. Cleveland Avenue. The purchase price was not disclosed.
D.R. Horton is the largest homebuilder by volume in the country. According to its website, the firm was founded in 1978 in Fort Worth, Texas, and has operations in 78 markets in 26 states across the country.
The company builds and sells homes and provides mortgage financing and title services for homebuyers through its mortgage and title subsidiaries, according to a previous release from the builder.