At the UNF Board of Trustees meeting on January 22, 1998, it was announced that John and Gerri Hayt donated $750,000 to fund the construction of a golf course on the University of North Florida’s campus. This donation, to be matched by the state of Florida, would comprise the bulk of the funds needed to construct the course. By February of that year, the university president, Adam Herbert, announced the plans to the rest of the UNF community. Herbert, along with golf coach John Brooks and athletics director Dr. Richard Gropper, led the push to have the 3-hole course constructed. However, the decision appears to have been made without the support of many students and faculty members.
This was not the first time that a golf course was suggested, though it was the first successful attempt. In 1974 and later in 1984, a golf course was proposed to the campus community and in both cases was not approved, primarily due to lack of widespread support. Furthermore, there were no mentions of a potential golf course in any of UNF’s master plans prior to the announcement in 1998.
Campus growth can still occur, but environmental protection must be the priority. If UNF ignores its promise to preserve wildlife each time it is inconvenient, especially when alternatives exist, what good is that promise?
Supporters of the proposed golf course argued for what they believed were many benefits to UNF and the local community. The UNF golf team would be able to utilize the space for practice as well as allowing students to have access to the golf course at a reduced fee. There was also the hope that a program in golf management could be created, though this did not come to fruition. Through a partnership with the First Tee Program, which donated $100,000 to the construction, underprivileged youth would be able to use the course.
These benefits, according to supporters, made the construction of the course a great addition to the campus. For critics, the proposed arguments in no way validated the environmental damage that would come from construction. For one, the golf team already had access to professional level golf courses nearby, arguably far more beneficial to the team’s success. Further, the location of UNF was also not suitable for children in the First Tee program, when public courses were found closer to the downtown area, where children who would most benefit lived. Critics argued that none of the “benefits” were worth the damage that would be done to the 30 plus acres of pristine forest.
From the beginning, President Adam Herbert’s decision to bring a golf course to UNF was not met with enthusiasm. A petition circulated around campus and letters of concern were sent to local publications as well as the UNF administration. While it was suggested there had been prior open hearings, there first meeting to gain attention was in April 1998. Many were hoping that the meeting would allow for a much needed discourse between administration and the broader university community. It was quickly apparent that administration was already sure of their decision, and that the meeting was simply to dispel what they considered misconceptions concerning the course. John Golden, then ranger of the UNF preserve, was present at the hearing held by vice president of Robert Fagin and was critical of the tone of the meeting; not feeling as though administration was taking into account the opinions of students and faculty. The Head of the Natural Sciences department, Johnny Randall, also came forward as an active voice against the construction of the course. He rallied the then Department of Natural Sciences and others in the UNF community to try to get answers from the administration and to protest their decision. Ultimately, Randall resigned from his faculty position, citing administrations mishandling of UNFs environmental heritage as one of the main reasons for his departure.
Since that first heady semester I have become increasingly disenchanted with the quality of environmental stewardship exhibited by the UNF administration. My disenchantment is largely responsible for my recent resignation.
Faculty and students, while aware by this point that the golf course was going to be built, attempted to mitigate the damage that would be done. Initially, the Faculty Association passed a resolution asking administration to reconsider the location of the proposed course; moving the course to an area of campus that was on previously damaged land to save the forest that was to be destroyed. Ultimately, the decision was announced by interim president E.K. Fretwell that while he appreciated the input, that construction was going to commence on the original location at the southern portion of campus.
Though the university community failed to secure a move of location, work continued to mitigate the damage in any way possible. The Student Government Association senate passed a resolution that proposed that work would be completed in accordance with the Audubon International Gold Signature Program. Audubon International works closely with courses in order to create environmentally sustainable golf courses. Construction guidelines are set and it is the job of those building the course to send monthly updates to Audubon. Considering all of the guidelines are met, the course will obtain its chosen status. While the decision to construct the golf course was controversial, many applauded the decision of the school to work with Audubon International.
Through the partnership with Audubon International, negative environmental impacts that oftentimes arise during construction projects, particularly golf courses, were likely diminished. The guidelines cover everything from the protection of native species, to landscaping with native foliage.
While UNF was successful in completing the tasks required by Audubon to reach Gold Signature status, there were several issues in regards to non-compliance during construction. The original resource manager for the course, Dona Bentzien (Kerlin), was very active in holding those involved in the construction accountable to Audubon International. Memos sent by Bentzien, later John Golden following Bentzien’s departure show some of the non-compliance issues that occurred during construction (include memos). One incident involved the unapproved removal of trees near the construction site. In a separate incident, a sensitive plant colony was destroyed during tree clearing. It was reported that a large pitcher plant colony was crushed by falling trees. The damage done during these incidences was mitigated according to Audubon standards, and the course reached its Signature status. The course opened for business in 2002.
For more information, be sure to visit the University of North Florida Digital Commons Sawmill Slough History collection.