How fast are golf courses vanishing? Developers have gobbled up nearly 20 in the last five years


A little under 20 golf courses have been or are in the process of re-development in Palm Beach and Broward Counties over the past five years, signaling a growing trend as developers sniff out that rarest of commodities, open land.

South Florida’s booming housing market has left developers hard pressed to find plots large enough for single-family home developments, making golf courses an optimal option to re-develop.

“The land in the suburban areas or near the urban cores has been scarce,” said Nelson Stabile, president of the Builder’s Association of South Florida. “If you are trying to develop single-family homes or townhome communities, it’s become very challenging to find land.”

According to numbers from the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser’s Office, there are 104 golf courses left in the county, including public, municipal, resort, semi-private, and private courses.

In the past five years, 13 Palm Beach County golf courses have either been converted or are in the process of being converted. Some of those include the Polo Trace Golf Course in Delray Beach, where GL Homes converted fairways, greens and bunkers into 325 housing units and the former Villa Delray golf course, where 13th Floor Homes plans to develop the property into a 55+ community with 436 residential units, according to the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser’s Office.

In Broward County, 41 golf courses remain. In the past five years, six golf courses in the county have been converted or are in the process of being converted to single-family homes or parks.

“There is so little land that is even buildable in South Florida, that at this point, golf courses are one of the few options left,” said Alex Yokana, developer at AKAI Estates, which recently built a development called AKAI Estates in Southwest Ranches. Though they have not yet built on a golf course, they had trouble finding enough vacant land for their custom mansions.

Developers are able to convert public or private golf courses, with each having similar challenges in terms of re-zoning and getting building permits approved.

Another reason golf courses conversions have picked up in recent years is due to upkeep costs, explained Jeff Lichtenstein, real estate agent and founder of Echo Fine Properties in Palm Beach Gardens. Sometimes selling is a more attractive option than maintenance.

“An older public course has to make a decision to upgrade its facilities and golf course in order to charge a lot more. There is usually more return on investment in the 40% jump in homeowner prices than getting 40% more in golf fees,” he said.

The lengthy conversion process

Building on a golf course isn’t a given. Some municipalities have zoning laws that must be debated and adjusted in order for building to occur, and a re-zoning process alone can take anywhere from 18 months to 3 years, depending on the rules and requirements of the municipality and whether there is neighborhood uproar over the development.

“It’s one of the biggest challenges in the process,” Stabile said.

As part of the re-zoning process, developers have to submit items like traffic studies and environmental impact assessments. After re-zoning is approved, they still have to wait for site plan approval and building permits, among other things.

“Most will have to go through a rezoning process — most golf courses carry a recreation type zoning or may allow a low density residential, which is not attractive to the developer. Zoning change, soil samples, site plan approval, etc., is most likely required,” said the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser’s Office.

Though open land is preferable to suburban sprawl to some homeowners, converting golf courses to homes can bring up the property values for homes in the surrounding area, added Lichtenstein.

“If they are building new homes, it should improve the value because the new homes will be ‘new.’ The latest look almost always brings the value up,” he said.

Not all courses end up becoming single-family homes developments. Cities in South Florida have instead re-developed some golf courses into parks, like the former Sunset Golf Course, where the city of Hollywood bought the golf course to prevent it from becoming a campground and instead try to convert it to a nature park.

Other times, developers are asked to keep some green space as they convert golf courses into homes. Toll Brothers gave four of the five parcels they purchased to build Century Village East in Deerfield Beach to be built into a park.

What’s the next course that has a date with the bulldozers? EastPointe, in Jupiter, is in the early stages of being developed into about 75 single-family homes. The golf course sold off its driving range to pay for a new lifestyle center and remodeling on the golf course, according to Victoria Lorusso, an agent at Echo Fine Properties.

Interest in the development has already been high, with builders fielding at least 500 calls about the community, she said.

If the golf course gobbling continues at pace, there will be another four South Florida courses slated for development by the end of the year.

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