The Pasco County Planning Commission voted 5-2 to recommend approval of a proposed change to the county’s comprehensive plan — as a first step toward the redevelopment of Saddlebrook Resort, in Wesley Chapel.
Despite the planning board’s positive Jan. 5 vote, members said they won’t support a needed companion zoning change unless it has a far greater degree of detail.
Saddlebrook opened in 1981 and achieved an international reputation for excellence in its tennis and golf facilities and programs. Through the years, premier athletes have flocked there to use the resort’s facilities — and its golf and tennis academies have helped prepare future champions.
Despite having a reputation as a crown jewel for Pasco County, there’s broad consensus that the 40-plus-year-old resort needs to be refreshed.
Mast Capital, based in Miami, is seeking approval to redevelop the property. But to do so it must gain approval from the Pasco County Commission to change the county’s comprehensive plan and also approval of a new master plan for Saddlebrook.
The planning board serves as an advisory board to the county commission.
Saddlebrook residents and attorneys packed the planning board’s public hearing, which lasted about four hours.
Residents expressed skepticism about Mast Capital’s intentions. They urged the planning board to protect Saddlebrook’s beauty, serenity, wildlife and legacy.
Greater clarity demanded
Two major sticking points centered on potential impacts from the proposed redevelopment and a lack of specificity in the plans.
Attorney Barbara Wilhite, representing Mast Capital, said her client has been meeting with Saddlebrook residents through the resort’s five homeowner’s associations.
Wilhite outlined Mast Capital’s proposal and said changes have been made, based on community feedback.
For instance, Mast Capital dropped a request to add 60 single-family residences and 100 townhomes on land the current proposal designates for golf course and golf course-related uses.
Wilhite also noted she’s working with attorneys on private deed restrictions, which will legally bind future uses of the land — a highly unusual step that her client is willing to take.
In broad strokes, the redevelopment plan has four parts: two areas are within Saddlebrook’s gated community and two outside, next to State Road 54.
The plan proposes combining the two 18-hole Arnold Palmer golf courses into a single 27-hole course.
“There are several holes that are plagued with terrible drainage situations that make them unplayable for significant amounts of time, throughout the year,” explained Eran Landry, a managing director for Mast Capital. “It’s going to take millions of dollars just in the golf course drainage improvements to change that.”
Landry said the company is in talks with two golf course designers.
Resident Patrick Hogan, who lives on Laurelwood Lane, told the planning board: “We’re on the Palmer course. It’s a Palmer course. There’s only one Arnold.
“It affects the value of our homes. That’s what we’re concerned about,” Hogan said.
Residents also want specificity regarding what “golf-related uses” would be allowed — and where the uses would be located.
They, and planning board members, also want to know where the tennis courts and driving range will be.
Mast Capital is seeking to increase the entitlement for commercial and retail uses from 100,000 square feet to 105,000 square feet; to 55 beds for the existing golf and tennis academy; to add a 12,000-square-foot clubhouse; to add 155 townhomes; and, to add 465 apartments.
The new development fronting State Road 54 will be a mixture of commercial and residential, in a walkable area featuring neighborhood parks, patio seating, a wide boulevard and other amenities.
Changes needed to reverse resort’s decline
“You want to create spaces that allow people to feel good, and obviously want to congregate and hang out, and enjoy their experiences at the resort. We intend to do that,” Landry said.
His company plans to spend millions to change the direction of the resort, which has been in decline, he said.
Mast Capital wants to add features such as a splash pad for kids; an ice cream shop for families; and, a coffee bar. It also wants to upgrade the pool area, which Landry characterized as “completely underwhelming.”
Plans call for a complete overhaul of existing resort rooms.
“Those resort rooms are just not competitive, relative to any other hotels nearby or other resorts. The occupancy and the rates have been in decline for a significant amount of time. We intend to change that,” Landry said.
A clubhouse is planned, too. Those are a common fixture at premier golf destinations, Landry said.
Wilhite said plans call for a dual left-turn lane and a dedicated right lane at the resort’s exit to improve traffic flow. A new right-in, right-out access onto State Road 54 also is planned to serve the project’s development along the state road.
Protect community’s character
Residents urged the planning board to protect the community they love.
“Driving home and entering the neighborhood has always felt like entering an oasis, a beautiful, quiet, natural haven,” said Judith Ranells, of Fox Hunt Drive, a Saddlebrook resident since 1988.
“The beauty within Saddlebrook is simply spectacular,” agreed Joann Barbetta, who lives on Fox Hunt Drive, too. “The expansive and dense collection of trees, the winding roads, the spacious driving range were all thoughtfully laid out.
“The homes are spaced far apart and there’s a lot of privacy and large, open spaces.
“The peacefulness and serenity of that can’t be overstated.
“Saddlebrook is also a place where you regularly interact with the best elite athletes in the world,” she added.
Her husband, Larry Barbetta, helped to form the Save Saddlebrook Coalition. The coalition seeks to protect the interests of residents throughout the community.
“We want to encourage investment enhancement in this community. We definitely do. But I cannot accept, and the coalition cannot accept, a complete lack of detail. There’s no idea where the (golf course) holes will go. There’s no idea where the driving range will go. That’s not written anywhere.
“This is really important to us. It’s incredibly important to us. It’s our lives,” he said.
Nancy Foster has lived on Saddlebrook Way for more than two decades.
“While living here, I’ve been privileged to watch pro tennis players practice and train.
“We have courts that provide for these players to play at Wimbledon, the French Open, the Australian Open and, of course, at home, at the U.S. Open. That’s why they come here.
“Keeping tennis courts and golf courses are important to the resort,” she said.
Foster cherishes the resort’s wildlife, too.
She described it this way: “There is a hawk who announces his arrival, as he flies over my house, every day. A coyote visiting my back porch, taking a nap. A bobcat checking out my backyard. Then the deer arrive. The many wild turkeys with their young, marching through. Let me not forget the otters, turtles and especially the owls keeping a watch over my pet bird, which is fortunately living in the house.”
Residents and planning board members raised question after question — and made it clear they want them answered before the next phase of the process, which involves the rezoning request.
After the planning board hears that request, both the land use and zoning change applications will be heard on the same day by the Pasco County Commission. That date has not yet been set.
Published January 11, 2023