The Town of Hilton Head Island announced its largest-ever land purchase this week, calling it "an incredible opportunity."
However, some residents of Port Royal Plantation see it as an opportunity lost.
Town Council approved spending $5 million to buy 102 acres in the gated community, including holes 2 through 16 of the Planter's Row Golf Course.
The town has no plans yet for the land, officials say. The town will borrow the money for the purchase, which should not require a tax increase, they add.
In the short term, the property will be leased back to the seller, the Heritage Golf Group, which will continue to use it as a golf course for at least two years.
Executive board members of the Port Royal Plantation Association of Landowners said they were "completely blindsided" by the announcement. The board in September gave its approval for a deal with a private investor that wanted to develop the land.
Bob Kolb, founder and CEO of The Melrose Co., wanted to build a shopping center and 119 middle-income and high-end apartments and cottages along U.S. 278 on the course. Kolb offered $5 million for the land. He also would have given an additional $2.27 million to the landowners association to fix up its beach house.
"I have some people who are very, very upset," board president Al Emanuelli said.
The Kolb plan would have saved taxpayers $5 million, created jobs and expanded both the island's tax base and Port Royal Plantation's dues base, Emanuelli argued.
Kolb said he had been negotiating for about six months with the Heritage Golf Group to acquire the property and was working with the town to learn about zoning and other requirements.
Kolb says the town was "stonewalling" him on some preliminary work and that he needed to get the property rezoned for commercial and residential development before he would buy it.
"I can't buy it without rezoning. (The town) can, so it wasn't a level playing field," said Kolb.
Town manager Steve Riley denies that the town would intentionally slow the work of a potential buyer or developer.
"You have a developer who essentially offered a POA board a $2 million bribe to buy their support for his plans, and they both want to accuse the town of acting inappropriately?" Riley said.
Heritage Golf Group executive vice president Gary Dee said the group preferred finding a buyer who wouldn't need to rezone the property. That was a major factor in deciding to sell to the town, he said.
Dee said the town first approached the company last summer with a $1 million offer, which was rejected. The group then began negotiations with Kolb. Late last year, Dee said, the group approached Riley and asked if the town would buy the property for $5 million.
The Heritage group was still in negotiations with Kolb when it approached the town, Dee said.
"Until you have a purchase and sale agreement, you're just having a series of conversations," Dee said of talks with Kolb. "This is a process that takes weeks, if not months."
Dee added that "a significant chunk" of the proceeds from the sale would be invested in the other two courses in Port Royal and their amenities. He declined to give a specific amount.
Members of the Port Royal Plantation board say the town unfairly competed against private enterprise. Its president, Emanuelli, also says that any plans the town may have for the land may face an uphill battle with the board. He said the town could start the deal by offering the board the same amount of money Kolb had offered.
Kolb, Emanuelli and plantation board members also said they were not upset with the Heritage Golf Group, which was merely seeking the best offer.
This isn't the first time the town has beaten a private developer to the punch with its land-acquisition program, which is designed to conserve open space and create parks on the island. Program land also has been used in private-public partnerships, such as the redevelopment of The Mall at Shelter Cove.
The town outbid developers for land at Honey Horn, Shelter Cove and near the Northridge shopping area, Riley said, adding that buying property has been the town's primary land-management tool. He also said that at the time of many of those purchases, the town did not know what it would do with the land.
"If suddenly that's the wrong thing," Riley said, "then all the citizens need to tell Town Council, '... We don't care about growth management. We don't care about how this place looks. We don't care about control.' ... And if that message is delivered, then I am sure Town Council will change its direction to me and how I go about doing my job."
Town Council voted unanimously Tuesday to buy the golf course land.
"It's a beautiful piece of property, centrally located in the middle of the island," said Mayor Drew Laughlin. "Why would we not buy it at that price?"