Purchase plan requires approval of a "recreation district."
Deborah Van Brunt had lived in University Park for eight years, but she felt foolish last summer when she learned the community’s star features — its golf course and country club — could be sold for development without any input from residents.
She signed off on it when she purchased her home, but didn’t realize it.
“It was humbling,” she said.
Van Brunt, however, is excited about what the future may hold. Residents could have the option to purchase the privately owned University Park Country Club through the formation of a recreation district.
If the deal goes through, they also will take over the developer-controlled homeowners association more than a decade early.
“This is the positive change we can be looking for, with the residents taking over the community,” Van Brunt said. “I got over my anger (at the developer) and myself. I’m really proud of the work our volunteers have done.
“Nobody in their sane mind wants to operate a golf course. Golf is not a big money maker.”
Van Brunt said the developers, John Neal and the Pasold family, are trying to make a sale to the homeowners possible.
“My take on them has improved in this process,” she said.
Her assessment is expected to be about $1,020 annually. Assessments communitywide would range from about $900 to $1,900 annually.
University Park opened in 1991 as a joint partnership between developer Pat Neal, of Neal Communities, and the late Rolf Pasold, whose family is represented by Charles Varah. Pat Neal’s son, John, bought out his father’s stake in late 2007. Neal and the Pasold family retain ownership of University Park Country Club, which has semiprivate membership.
The community’s governing documents have always said the Country Club and associated land could be sold at any time.
“(Rolf Pasold) said the club is the social heart of the community,” Varah said. “He was always fixated on a way to move the ownership from the developer to the residents. The deal meets everybody’s goals.”
Neal and Varah in March 2017 approached John Whyte, the homeowner association board’s lone resident representative, about selling the Country Club and affiliated lands.
“It was a bit of a shock,” Whyte said. “Everybody here loved the club and the way it was running.”
Whyte and a 27-member core volunteer team has been doing due diligence and educating the community since.
“From the very beginning, it was a land deal,” Whyte said.
The proposed purchase price is $16.75 million and includes the 266-acre golf course and club, ponds within the community and an additional 100 acres of conservation area and other land.
“It’s an incredible opportunity,” Whyte said. “This is the opportunity for residents to get control of University Park and control of its destiny, maintain it as it is.”
Janette Gatesy, who has lived in the Devonshire Place section of University Park for four years, said she supports the transaction. When she bought her home, she knew the developer would retain control of the homeowners association until 2029 and was not happy about it.
“Finding out we were going to be able to control our own destiny was very positive,” Gatesy said. “Nothing negative about what they were doing — it’s just knowing it’s us. It’s our destiny.
“We had park districts up north, so it’s not a foreign concept to me,” she said.
Gatesy commended the volunteers who have spearheaded research and negotiations, noting there were monthly newsletters, a website and community meetings about the proposal. The final 16 meetings for 32 neighborhoods held in late January provided the final details following negotiations in November.
“I hope it goes through,” Gatesy said of the recreation district. “I hope that even if people are negative on it, they sign the petition, then everybody has right to vote. That’s a good thing.”
Resident Connie Bennett laughed as she called the deal a “necessary evil.”
“We’d prefer to be driving the bus than have some outside entity come in here and own it and manage it,” she said.
“If you educate yourself on all the facts, it’s easy to come to the conclusion to do it rather than not to do it,” she said. “It’s easier sometimes to keep things the way they are, but it’s not realistic, so you have to figure out what’s in the best interest (of everyone).”
Not everyone supports the deal.
One resident who didn’t want to be identified said the developer was trying to take advantage of the homeowners by holding their “view” hostage.
Whyte said 83% of 1,517 residents who completed a Jan. 28 survey support the transaction.
The next step is for voters within University Park to petition the county for the creation of the recreation district. The Manatee County Supervisor of Elections will validate each petition and submit it to Manatee County for review. If the majority of petitions support the district, the Manatee County Commission would consider an ordinance to establish it.
Whyte said the recreation district would establish a board of supervisors and finalize property negotiations and plans to issue bonds for the land acquisition. University Park homeowners and residents would vote on the bond.
“That’s the key moment,” Whyte said. “Until then, they’ve not made any financial commitment.”
If the vote fails, so does the deal
Whyte said the goal is to collect 1,000 petition signatures before the end of February. There are an estimated 1,600 voters in University Park.
“We feel we’ve got the support,” he said. “Now we’ve got to actually do it.”
Work on the project is ongoing, but the transaction likely will close this year if homeowners give the OK.
“Changing the use of land or turning land into housing for people is my business, and I do it well and thoroughly many times per year,” John Neal said. “In this particular case, a land use change would negatively impact a lot of people. The partners, from Pat Neal and Rolf Pasold, to the present day family ownership have a long history and respect for the residents of University Park. To embark on a land use change would be emotional and disruptive.”