Approximately 20 community members spoke at last Tuesday’s policy discussion at Alachua County Administration headquarters to voice their concerns about the development of a proposed golf course in southwest Gainesville. The meeting lasted approximately three hours and ended with the commission approving a special area study, which outlines the minimum protective measures required for future development. Now, the developer must review and produce a detailed report addressing the commission’s concerns to be presented in a later meeting that hasn’t been scheduled yet.
The Lee family owns 4,068 acres of property near Haile Plantation. The family plans to donate 580 acres of their property to the University of Florida, which intends to build a 36-hole golf course that will replace the 18-hole Mark Bostick Golf Course owned and operated by the university. Some residents who live near the property are against any development and attended the meeting to talk about it.
“These are sensitive areas,” said Sarah Younger, executive committee chair of the Suwannee St. Johns group. “They were planning the biggest development on top of an area that has the most significant features to protect.”
In 2020, the scope of work for the special area planning process was submitted and approved by the Alachua County Commission. The planning process requires an in-depth analysis of the proposed development in collaboration with the county, the landowner and the public. Land development regulations have three steps: scope of work, special area study and special area plan.
Younger said one of her major concerns with the plan is the high concentration of potential sinkholes located within the golf course boundary. Sinkholes are holes in the ground that occur when water dissolves the limestone, which leads to a direct connection to the aquifer, she said.
Ground-penetrating radar technology, a potential solution, detects underground tunnels that could identify where sinkholes may form, she said.
She said she is also concerned about water monitoring because people who live in the rural districts rely on the aquifer and wells as their source of drinking water.
“There could be cavities underneath this portion of the property that are not visible,” she said. “I’m concerned about the use of a golf course on top of permeable soils where we have no idea what’s directly beneath that.”
Environmental Consulting and Technology Inc., hired by the Lee’s and located in Gainesville, submitted a report that identified significant geological features or sinkholes. There are 12 potential sinkholes located within the UF property boundary.
The family hired Cardno, a now wholly owned subsidiary of Stantec, an environmental consultant company, to conduct a ground-truth evaluation, which is an on-site assessment of the land. The company completed a survey that estimated there are 1,532 gopher tortoises and 3,063 burrows on the property.
“Gopher tortoises are incompatible with the golf course,” Younger said. “These species are threatened, and loss of habitat is the greatest threat to wildlife.”
“We’ll be watching closely,” she said. “We just ask that they be good neighbors. These are the most sensitive areas now under their control.”
Christopher Stoney, an Alachua County resident, expressed concerns about UF’s proposed sustainable management practices.
“I’d like to see how they are striving to be the preeminent example of a modern, environmentally friendly, ecologically sustainable golf course,” Stoney said. “I think it’s a very attainable goal.”
Water usage for the proposed golf course is estimated to be one million gallons per day during the summer and 650,000 gallons per day year round, according to the special area study application. In a presentation from Sept. 20, 2022, UF said it will have 24/7 computer monitoring for irrigation.
“What benefit does that provide the people that live there that are going to be sharing that water source for their drinking water?” Stoney said. “They’re going to be using chemicals for fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. When you combine those chemicals with millions of gallons of water, that means those chemicals are guaranteed to get into the groundwater.”
Rather than irrigating beyond the scope of where golf is played, he said he wants to see the university commit to some form of water irrigation that aligns with conscious water usage.
“It goes beyond saying that they want to have a sustainable or environmentally friendly golf course,” he said. “I want to see what specific requirements would need to be met for that definition. How is UF going to go above and beyond?”
“If I’m in UF’s shoes, I would want to use this as an opportunity to showcase all the specific ways we’re going to take this unique ecosystem and make sure it’s protected, conserved and safely integrated into this golf course design,” Stoney said.
Instead of trying to dissuade the university from building a golf course, he said there should be an emphasis on environmental accountability in their planning of this golf course.
“UF should hold themselves to a higher standard, and Alachua County citizens should expect UF to hold themselves to the highest standard and to strive to be the preeminent force for all future golf courses being developed,” he said.
The current facility used by UF faculty and students is the Mark Bostick Golf Course.
“By today’s championship standards, it really doesn’t present the distance and the type of design challenges that today’s golfers demand,” said Steve Orlando, UF associate vice president for communications.
“A 36-hole golf course doesn’t require 580 acres, so much of that property will remain undisturbed,” Orlando said. “There’s a great deal of emphasis placed on being good stewards of the environment. We would be using the current best practices for designing and building the course to preserve as much of the natural environment as possible.”
The facility would have 36 holes of golf, a clubhouse, 30 cottages, a maintenance facility, and facilities for the men’s and women’s golf student athletes.
The proposed golf course is expected to be private, but there is the possibility of hosting tournaments for youth groups and a place for high schools teams to practice, he said.
“This golf course would be privately funded,” he said. “There would be no public funds involved.”
Before the Lee’s family donation, UF did not consider building a new golf course, he said.