In this Sept. 14, 2016 video, the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club put the final touches on its renovated course redesigned by John Sanford with Jack Nicklaus as a consultant.
An effort to strengthen the enforcement of an easement designed to preserve the cherished golf course at the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club has lost some steam.
The effort has taken a back seat, as The Athens Group — the future owner and developer — focuses on finalizing the purchase of the landmark property, off Gulf Shore Boulevard in Naples.
The long-anticipated sale is expected to close within a week. That will put the prized 125-acre property in the developer’s hands before the city can put more teeth into its existing easement agreement.
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Naples City Council learned of the now-stalled negotiations at a board meeting on May 13.
The update came from Ken Hart, chairman and CEO of Ausley McMullen, the Tallahassee-based law firm the city hired in September to explore options for the perpetual preservation of the hotel’s well-known championship golf course.
After looking into the options, the firm recommended the city pursue a statutory conservation easement monitored by a land trust.
City Council agreed, directing Ausley McMullen to spearhead the negotiations between the developer and the land trust in early April.
After an introductory talk, however, Hart said the developer hesitated to move forward, canceling a follow-up meeting and stressing the need to focus on the closing of the property — and the financing needed for development.
“The developer controls what the easement says and what’s in it,” Hart said.
He affirmed to City Council that the proposed statutory easement is the “gold standard,” and the best assurance of protecting the golf course property in perpetuity.
In its earlier recommendations to the city, Ausley McMullen stated that a statutory conservation easement provides more certainty because of items addressed under Florida statutes such as “validity, enforceability, assignment and duration.”
Current easement weak
During his update last week, Hart reiterated the “current easement doesn’t really accomplish a whole lot.”
In 2019, when the former Naples City Council approved the plans to redevelop the hotel property, it accepted an easement from The Athens Group covering 104.6 acres.
City Council at the time chose not to involve a third party in the easement accord, although The Athens Group seemed open to the idea.
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Since March, the current easement has become a hot-button issue. That’s when The Athens Group started publicly sharing the possibility of shrinking the 18-hole golf course to 10 holes and creating new recreational activities on open, green space, including an instructional school for golf.
City councilors discussed the possibility of getting a more stringent easement agreement if the developer agrees to resume talks with the land trust. That didn’t sit well with The Athens Group’s executives, who were in council chambers, waiting to speak on a proposal involving height restrictions.
Jay Newman, The Athens Group’s chief operating officer, stood up to address City Council’s concerns and defend the developer’s position, at times showing his frustration with the board.
He stressed his company entered into the current agreement voluntarily, as part of a “good faith process” that included input from the city and the community.
On top of that, the developer later agreed to have a citizen oversight committee supervise the agreement, in response to the uneasiness expressed by new councilors seated after its approval.
“Why did we do it? Newman asked rhetorically. “As always has been our case, we want to be a good partner. We are, will be a part of the community.”
The Athens Group has already agreed to “some very onerous restrictions,” as part of the current easement, and will live with them, but it’s not willing to bend anymore, Newman said.
“We are not going to expand the restrictions we have already agreed to,” he said. “There is no reason to do that.”
The Athens Group, he said, has already made its unwillingness to budge on the terms of the easement clear to the city and the North American Land Trust — the land trust the Ausley McMullen has chosen to negotiate with the developer on a new arrangement.
In recent months, the developer has faced some unexpected obstacles and challenges that have forced it to focus on more critical issues than a stronger easement agreement, Newman said.
That includes City Council’s unexpected decision more than a month ago to hold up what should have been an uncontroversial plat approval, he said, apparently due to the board’s larger concerns about what the upscale project — including its golf course — will ultimately look like.
Going forward, he said the City Council should review the developer’s applications based on evidence and merit, not on “extraneous factors” that should have no bearing on its deliberations or decisions.
“This is a two-way street,” Newman told the Council “And we are going to continue to work with you in good faith and we hope you will continue to work with us in good faith.”
The delay in the easement discussions has only been about a month, he said, and the developer intends to reengage in those talks soon.
Newman’s negative comments about Council actions and reactions ruffled some feathers.
Councilman Ray Christman said he disagreed with some of Newman’s criticisms, but didn’t want to get into a “tit for tat.”
“Talk is cheap,” he said, questioning when the developer will turn talk into action and reignite talks.
He directly asked when the talks might resume and when they might reach the “finish line.”
Talks to resume
The Athens Group plans to restart the negotiations in June, Newman said, not long after closing on its purchase of the property. However, he said, he didn’t know how long they would take.
Vice Mayor Terry Hutchison said he didn’t doubt the developer’s commitment to sign an agreement for third-part enforcement.
“This is one of, if not the most important, long-term conservation decisions for our community,” he said. “Let’s get it right and let’s get it done.”
Asked how long it might take to get it done, Hart, with Ausley McMullen, said a revised agreement could be hammered out within a few weeks once conversations restart.
“The land trust is very experienced,” he said. “I mean, this is not their first easement. So they are not starting from scratch.”
As for potential changes to the golf course and other open, green space on the property, Newman told City Council they became such a big distraction — with so much neighborhood noise and opposition — that they’re now “on hold.”
“We are moving forward at this time with an 18-hole golf course,” Newman said.
In other words, the developer is moving forward with the site plan the city approved in December 2019, at least for now.
“Until we file an application to change it, it’s not changing,” Newman said. “That’s just where we’re at.”
Leaving the door open, he said recreational offerings could be revisited in the future, but the city would have to approve any significant changes.
The Athens Group plans to raze the beach hotel and build a five-star 220-room resort along with “best-in-class” residential condos on both sides of Gulf Shore Boulevard.
The project’s recreational amenities would not only serve the development’s condo owners and hotel guests, but the community — and other visitors who want to use them.
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