GAINESVILLE, Fla.— The Sixth Annual Richard E. Nelson Symposium, to be held Friday, Feb. 2, at the University of Florida Hilton Conference Center, will assemble an unprecedented panel of experts to discuss the legal aspects of a growing real estate development phenomenon in Florida and throughout the nation—the conversion of existing golf courses into more intensive land uses.
In many communities that are experiencing intense growth pressures and that contain a shrinking inventory of developable parcels, golf courses are being targeted for residential, commercial, and mixed-use projects. Local government officials often find themselves in the middle of heated battles between neighboring residents, golfers, builders, and environmental and conservation groups.
“It’s a national phenomenon,” said the symposium’s organizer, UF Law Professor Michael Allan Wolf, Richard E. Nelson Chair in Local Government Law at the Levin College of Law. “It raises some very fascinating questions about the role of local government, neighborhood organizations, and the limits of zoning and planning.”
In some areas, such as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Wolf explained, the perception is that developers built too many golf courses, and they are being converted to other uses. In high growth areas such as South Florida, golf courses are looked at as prime, undeveloped parcels by real estate developers. “Private golf course owners often are finding it tough to stay in the golf business, and so they’re willing to sell out to developers.”
Symposium presenters will survey national trends in golf course conversions; review the pertinent case law; explain the perspectives of, and special challenges facing, attorneys representing developers, neighbors, and local governments; debate the legitimacy of the use of eminent domain to take a golf course; explore relevant conservation easement and covenant law concepts; discuss environmental aspects of golf course operations and conversions; and examine special Florida law concerns and the potential for linking conversions to the provision of affordable housing, open space, and other public benefits.
More often than not, Wolf said, golf courses are being converted into residential properties. “You have different groups that are potentially opposed to this,” he said. “Often you have neighbors and neighborhood organizations that are unhappy that there’s going to be increased congestion, and loss of the golf course if they happen to belong to it.”
The conversions can create headaches for local government officials who have to make zoning decisions and are caught between residents who want to keep the golf course on the one side and developers who want to build homes on the other. Environmentalists could go either way on an issue like this, Wolf said. While they are often opponents of golf courses because of the practices that they perceive to be bad for the environment, the prospect of bringing in thousands of new residents to an area who are going to be watering and fertilizing their lawns, and increasing traffic doesn’t make them happy either.
To facilitate discussion, Wolf has brought in attorneys who have represented all the competing forces in this issue—neighbors, developers, and local governments. In addition, the symposium will include local and national experts on zoning to discuss planning considerations. A consultant from the National Golf Foundation will discuss conversions taking place throughout the country, and a national director with the United States Golf Association will discuss its program to develop courses in an environmentally friendly way.
Several law professors also will participate, including Eric R. Claeys, assistant professor of law at the Saint Louis University School of Law, who will debate Wolf on the use of eminent domain by a locality to take a golf course. Nancy A. McLaughlin, professor of law at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, will discuss the use of conservation easements, and UF Law student Steven Wernick will discuss some of the court cases related to golf course conversions.
The event is not open to the public, but is free to members of the media who wish to attend. This is the sixth symposium honoring Richard E. Nelson–who served with distinction as Sarasota County attorney for 30 years–and Jane Nelson, two loyal UF alumni who gave more than $1 million to establish the Richard E. Nelson Chair in Local Government Law, which sponsors the annual event.
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