The Pasco County Commission is set to take up a request involving the redevelopment of Saddlebrook Resort at its April 4 meeting.
After several hours of testimony on Feb. 7, the board decided to delay the request until then, to provide more time to get questions answered and to give opposing parties a chance to seek resolution.
The issue involves a request by Miami-based Mast Capital to redevelop Saddlebrook, which opened in Wesley Chapel in 1981.
At its prime, Saddlebrook was known internationally for excellence in its golf facilities, with its two Arnold Palmer-designed courses and for its tennis facilities and programs.
Elite athletes flocked there to use the resort’s facilities, and its golf and tennis academies helped to prepare future champions.
But there’s consensus now that improvements are needed at the 40-year-plus facility to restore its former glory.
Contentious debate continues, however, over whether Mast Capital’s vision is the best way to move forward.
“I get the sense that we’re all at an impasse — the board members, Mast and their project, and the residents,” Commissioner Seth Weightman said.
He called for a continuance.
“I’d like to spend some more time, meet with the applicant — get some assurances and an understanding on what we’re looking like going forward, what the final plan is,” Weightman said.
Commissioner Ron Oakley said he hopes the delay will give opponents a chance to come closer to resolution.
“Somewhere in the middle is the right fix, for the residents and for Mast,” Oakley said, adding if they can find common ground in the middle, both sides can win.
During the Feb. 7 public hearing, the county board considered Mast Capital’s request to transmit its proposed land use change to the state Department of Economic Opportunity and other state agencies for review.
That’s just one step in the process, which also requires Mast Capital to obtain county board approvals of a proposed land use change and a revised Saddlebrook master plan.
Attorney Barbara Wilhite represents Mast Capital, which purchased Saddlebrook about 10 months ago, from Tom Dempsey, the original owner.
Wilhite explained Mast Capital’s proposed changes.
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 redevelopment calls for 105,000 square feet of commercial and retail entitlements — a 5,000-square-foot increase over its current entitlement. It also calls for an additional 55 beds for the existing golf and tennis academy; a 12,000-square-foot clubhouse; 155 townhomes; and 465 apartments.
Development along State Road 54 would include a mixture of commercial and residential uses in a walkable area featuring neighborhood parks, patio seating, a wide boulevard and other amenities, according to the proposal.
Plans also call for dual left-hand turning lanes leading out of the resort’s main entrance. Plus, an additional right-in/right-out access would serve the new development along State Road 54.
Jordan Kornberg, managing director and head of acquisitions for Mast Capital, explained the company’s vision for Saddlebrook, which is located off State Road 54, east of Interstate 75.
“We want it to be a world-class resort again. We want to prop up the golf academy, the tennis academy and really all of the existing components of that business are our focus.
“This will create jobs, significant economic benefit to the county and enhance the existing residents and the community,” he said.
Since acquiring Saddlebrook, Mast Capital has invested $5 million in capital improvements and expects to spend $5 million more this year, Kornberg said.
Bryce Swanson, a golf course architect for Rees Jones Inc., described plans for replacing the resort’s two 18-hole Arnold Palmer golf courses with three nine-hole courses.
Commission Chairman Jack Mariano, noting he’s recently played golf at Saddlebrook, spoke against the idea of reconfiguring the courses.
“Why can’t we just work to improve what’s there?” Mariano asked.
“The greens are in fantastic shape. The best I’ve seen them, maybe ever. That course is well-designed. It drains well, if it’s maintained,” Mariano said.
Swanson disagreed: “The golf course is in dire need of repair.
“The drainage system doesn’t work. The irrigation system is on Band-aids. Things need to be repaired,” he said.
One course can’t be used during the rainy season because the drainage is so poor, he said.
Swanson said his company told Mast Capital that putting things back to the way they were would be “more of a short-term fix.”
Saddlebrook resident Patrick Hogan said he and his wife purchased their home — with its views of holes 12, 13 and 14 — with the expectation it would stay that way.
“In our mind, we didn’t just buy a home with a golf course view. We bought a home with a Palmer golf course view. Rees Jones is very reputable, but they are not Arnold Palmer and we will no longer have Arnold Palmer courses.”
Hogan questioned how the resort could attract tournaments without an 18-hole course.
Kornberg said the new design has flexibility: two nine-hole courses could be combined for an 18-hole course.
Numerous residents urged the county board to reject the request.
Joann Barbetta, who lives on Fox Hunt Drive, and her husband, Larry, organized the Save Our Saddlebrook Coalition.
Joann Barbetta told the county board: “Ten years ago, we came to Saddlebrook, when our daughter had dreams of training at a tennis academy.
“The tennis drew us in, but the wonderful people, the natural beauty and the abundant wildlife made us stay.
“You can see that Saddlebrook is simply spectacular,” she said, referring to video shots of the resort’s natural areas. “The expansive and dense collection of trees, the winding roads, the spacious driving range were all carefully laid out.
“The homes are spaced far apart, with a lot of privacy and large open spaces. The peacefulness and serenity of that, cannot be overstated,” she said.
Larry Barbetta added: “We love our community. We are here to make sure that anything that’s done in the development and redevelopment of our community is consistent with the values, heritage and builds on the legacy of Saddlebrook.”
A number of other speakers raised concerns about traffic; insufficient fire, police and emergency services; a threat to their quality of life; and, a potential drop in property values.
But Barry Shein, treasurer on Saddlebrook’s condo association’s board, said the coalition of opponents do not represent everyone with property at the resort.
He said his group has been working with Mast Capital and is confident its representatives “are people of integrity.
“I believe they will do what they say they are going to do,” he said.
Shein also noted the Mast Capital proposed development will help generate money needed to make improvements to upgrade the property.
The condo board’s attorney, according to Shein, has been involved in drafting the deed restriction “to make sure, in perpetuity, the golf course would remain a golf course.”
Published February 22, 2023