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February 2019

Judge Orders Course to Remain Open Regardless of Economics

By Steve Eubanks

A Florida judge has decided to get into the golf business. Not actively, but through judicial fiat.

In December 2018, Nassau County (Florida) circuit court judge Steven Fahlgren ruled against Omni Amelia Island LLC (part of Omni Hotels and Resorts) ordering the resort to reconstruct and reopen Amelia Island’s Ocean Links golf course.

As part of his scathing opinion, Fahlgren gave the resort 10 months to repair all damage and reopen the course for business, regardless of economic considerations. 

It all started when Omni, which purchased the Amelia Island assets out of bankruptcy in 2010, entered into an agreement with the Amelia Island Equity Club, a group of homeowners, over usage rights to two golf courses. One of the courses, Oak Marsh, is popular and playable. But Ocean Links, Pete Dye’s first design in the Jacksonville area, predating TPC Sawgrass, was a narrow, meandering and extraordinarily difficult layout. The average resort golfer couldn’t break 100 and it got little play from the locals, despite having two holes along the Atlantic. Omni and the AIEC agreed that the equity club would guarantee 10,000 rounds a year on the two courses, including 3,000 on Ocean Links. The balance of play would be resort guests.

According to testimony by resort management, the club failed to meet that commitment. Homeowners played only 1,000 rounds on Ocean Links in all of 2017, according to the resort. 

So, in November 2018, without prior notification to homeowners, the resort began demolishing Ocean Links. The plan was to return it to greenbelt with parks, nature walks and bike paths. Several of the greens were destroyed before the AIEC filed an emergency injunction.

A month later, Fahlgren, whose resume shows no previous experience in golf course management, ordered Omni to restore the course to its original condition by October 31, 2019, with no provisions for weather or other mitigating circumstances. The judge also prohibited the resort from using the property for anything other than a golf course.

Omni issued a statement that read: “Omni’s business judgment is that current demand for golf is better served by making material improvements to the Oak Marsh Course and investing all golf resources into the operation of one quality 18-hole course.”

The statement also called Ocean Links “by far the poorest quality course in Omni’s entire golf portfolio of 21 courses and Omni received many complaints about the quality of the golf layout. Ocean Links denigrates the reputation of the resort as a quality golf destination.”

Judge Fahlgren awarded court costs and attorney fees to the AIEC.

“There was substantial testimony at trial that leads this court to find that Omni has both the resources and expertise to restore and continue operating the Ocean Links golf course,” Fahlgren wrote in his opinion. “Omni has repeatedly demonstrated its access to substantial capital, investing tens of millions of dollars in such projects.

“Omni made a point of destroying the greens on day one, which Omni’s director of golf course maintenance described as the ‘bread and butter of the golf course,’” Fahlgren’s opinion continued. “Omni destroyed the Ocean Links golf course without notice and in a manner that accomplished the destruction before the club had an opportunity to obtain judicial relief. Florida law will not permit Omni to benefit from this misconduct.”

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