Feb. 19 UPDATE: The Hollywood City Commission Wednesday took a tentative step toward purchasing the former Sunset Golf Course for as much as $12 million.
Commissioners voted 6-1 to ask staff to bring back for their review in 90 days a contract proposal that identifies all risks associated with purchasing the 45-3 acre parcel and indemnities from the seller, along with a new appraisal based on the current land use and zoning restrictions.
Owner Richmond Italia lowered his asking price for the land by $2.5 million, to $12 million, in what he’s said was a final attempt to reach agreement. City officials said he told them he would not come down any further.
The 90 day delay is to allow the city time to complete its due diligence and discovery any problems that need to be addressed.
By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Hollywood’s hopes of purchasing a former golf course for use as a nature preserve and public park could disappear with the property owner’s new plans to transform the 45.3-acre site into a campground and recreational vehicle park.
The city has earmarked as much as $12 million from last year’s voter-approved general obligation bond to buy the former Sunset Golf Course owned by Richgreens, a limited partnership run by businessman Richmond Italia. But as negotiations have dragged on, Italia has applied for a permit to develop the RV park.
Italia has offered to sell for $14.3 million. In an interview, he explained that number covers his total investment in the property, including carrying costs he’s absorbed since he bought it four years ago and a modest profit. The city recently countered with an offer of $9 million.
With the two sides far apart, city officials including Assistant City Manager George Keller met with Italia and his lawyer Thursday in a last ditch effort to make the sale happen before Italia proceeds with his plans for the RV park. He said the city gave him a letter “clarifying” that the property is zoned for such use.
“It was a very cordial meeting,” Italia said. “They want to close the gap so they can put a final proposal to the city commission…But we didn’t get any closer. What they asked was for me to consider their offer over the weekend and come out with my absolute best price and it will presented at next week’s meeting for a yes or no vote.”
“Both sides agreed that if we don’t come to a deal we’re done. They’ll let me do my RV park.”
Hollywood spokeswoman Raelin Storey said much the same, noting that the matter is set to be heard by the commission at next Wednesday’s meeting.
Storey explained that the city and Italia have based their proposed sale prices on appraisals each has obtained. “Mr. Italia has suggested that he is willing to try and negotiate and end up somewhere in the middle,” she said. “If not, he’ll have to decide whether he can move forward by going through the process to do what is allowed by code.”
An odyssey through the system
Italia, who acquired the land at 2727 Johnson St. in 2016, originally tried to develop what he hoped would become Hollywood Adventures Park, whose centerpiece was to be an expansive, outdoor paintball park. Italia is a paintball enthusiast who operates several locations in Canada.
But that idea fizzled amid city dithering following opposition Italia says was stoked by influential Hollywood resident Karen Caputo, president of Friends of Hollywood.
In an interview, Italia said he recently partnered with a company that would operate the site as an RV park and pay rent to him. He declined to identify the company, but said it “owns several campground businesses” elsewhere in Florida.
Italia’s odyssey through the system is noteworthy. It’s not typical of a big-time developer who buys a chunk of South Florida land and then throws his weight and money around to get the project done. Italia is wealthy, certainly, but he didn’t hire a single city hall lobbyist. Nor did he play the political game by making contributions to the campaigns of city or county mayors or commissioners.
“It’s been a very confusing ride,” he said. “I’m not a developer. I’m a paintball guy… I suppose I should have done that. I’m learning.”
That learning included recently hiring prominent development attorney Dennis Mele to represent him at Thursday’s meeting with the city.
Italia, an electrical engineer by trade, said his interest in the old golf course began five years ago. “I was moving here in the midst of moving to the U.S. [from Canada],” said Italia. “There were no decent paintball fields. My son had nowhere to play. I saw that piece of land and I got an agent to call the bank to see if they were interested in selling.” Italia now lives in Fort Lauderdale.
The land is zoned “open space recreational,” Italia said. He went to the city with detailed plans for “an extreme park” with paintball, DMX bike trails, rock climbing and other amusements. “The idea was to get kids off the couch,” he said.
Italia, 55, says a city zoning and permitting official told him, “We don’t have any specific zoning for what you want to do but if you go to the county and if they allow it, we’ll go with whatever the county says. There were many witnesses to that.”
Four months later, Italia said, the county gave him a sign-off letter stating that it was fine with the paintball park idea. “During that time, my due diligence with the bank ran out so I had to close” on the purchase. The cost: $2 million, plus an additional payment to a leaseholder on the property. Italia said he could not disclose that additional cost because of a confidentiality agreement.
Meanwhile, Caputo and Friends of Hollywood had begun to denounce Italia’s idea. “We don’t want a simulated war zone in our neighborhood,” the group said in a statement in early 2017, according to the Hollywood Gazette.
Italia said neighbors who live next to the property that’s just east of I-95 liked what he was trying to do. Nevertheless, “I went back to the city and now they decide that’s not good enough. I said, ‘I bought based on you telling me the city would be OK with this.’ But commissioners got pressure from residents and then they put pressure on city staff.” Among other things, Italia said he was told that because the property was zoned recreational “that means you are not going to make any money off it.”
The city commission later voted the idea down. Commissioner Traci Callari “wouldn’t even meet with the largest landowner in her district,” Italia said.
Italia’s property problem then got worse. The county notified him two years ago about the need to mitigate elevated arsenic levels found in the soil – a problem common to the sites of old golf courses that regularly used herbicides and other chemicals to maintain grass and greens.
In August, Italia obtained a county permit to conduct a pilot “soil management test program” on part of the site that calls for blending “water treatment residuals from the lime softening material used in the water filtration process” into the soil to dilute the arsenic to acceptable levels.
That yellowish lime sludge, mostly calcium carbonate, is considered clean fill by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and is allowed for such use.
Italia has obtained and spread tons of the clean material on both the test area and across most of the rest of the sprawling property that’s largely been cleared of trees and underbrush. He said the removed greenery was only “invasive species.”
Italia is using the fill to raise the ground level of his property between two and three feet to alleviate flooding, which he says is caused by the city illegally dumping storm water onto his property. Runoff pipes leading to his property can be seen where city streets abut his property. He said the city has refused to channel the runoff into a nearby canal.
“This is why the golf course went into bankruptcy. It was getting flooded,” Italia said.
The lime sludge comes from Fort Lauderdale’s Charles W. Fiveash Regional Water Treatment plant. Italia says the plant pays the hauler to take its clean fill elsewhere. Italia gets it for free. “It’s a win, win situation,” he said.
Except that the county insists that Italia also needs a surface water management license, which he has applied for, but has yet to obtain. Last week Carlos Adorisio, who oversees that licensing, said in an interview that Italia must submit adequate information before the license is granted.
Now, the public-private dance over what will become of the old Sunset Golf Course appears to be nearing an end.
“It’s been a very painful and long ordeal for both of us,” said Italia.