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Members and homeowners watch with keen interest as a legal battle over the future of Gulf Harbors brews.
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
Published July 25, 2004
Marshall "Moe" Springer picked up his first golf bag at age 10, when he realized becoming a caddy could get him out of washing dishes in his Depression-era Chicago home.
At age 12, he played a round in Miami with Babe Ruth, innocently trying to correct the legendary slugger's left-handed swing. At age 13, he became the youngest player ever to tee off at the Western Open, one of the stops on the PGA tour.
Golf became the defining thread in Springer's life: He played across the country (although his PGA winnings totaled just $415), he maintained the greens at two courses in Pueblo, Colo., and he taught the game's finer points to the University of Southern Colorado's golf team. He even earned a spot in the Greater Pueblo Sports Association's Hall of Fame.
Shortly after he turned 56, the lure of owning 18 holes in paradise brought Springer to Gulf Harbors, a New Port Richey retirement community filled with pastel homes and boating canals along the Gulf of Mexico.
He paid $180,000 for the sandy Gulf Harbors Golf Course in 1979 and turned it into a family business. He handled the memberships and cart rentals. His wife, former beautician Mary Margaret "Pegge" Springer, ran the snack bar. At different times his daughters chipped in.
Now at age 81, Springer is mired in a legal battle with his daughters and a developer over the fate of the tattered golf course. It's the classic tug-of-war over a family asset - except the outcome also affects about 80 dues-paying members and hundreds of Gulf Harbors homeowners who say the golf course buoys their property values.
At issue is the seemingly simple question: After spending his life on the greens, does Moe Springer really want to sell his golf course?
Last year, Springer said he was ready to sell the 50-acre golf course - clubhouse, golf carts and all. He called his real estate agent and told him to put the property on the market.
Springer's asking price: $1-million in cash. His wife was nearing the end of a decade-long battle with Alzheimer's, and her nursing home care was running $4,000 a month.
"I just wanted the money," he said.
No problem. The golf course drew three suitors, who bid up the price.
Springer signed a $1.5-million deal last October to sell the course to a developer who planned to replace the 18 holes with 120 homes - if the county agreed to rezone the land. Neighbors organized to fight the plan, arguing the additional homes would create flooding problems and ruin the golf course view from dozens of back yards.
The deal suddenly unraveled in April, when the county received two letters requesting the county drop any effort to rezone the golf course for homes.
One was signed by Springer, who scrawled at the bottom that the golf course "stays as is." The other was signed by his older daughter and live-in caretaker, Mary Catherine "Cathi" Hinshaw, 46.
"Mr. Springer does not even want to sell the golf course at this time and intends to turn the course over to his grandchildren in the future," Hinshaw wrote. "He is confused on the matter of sale of the golf course and cannot comprehend that the golf course has an application (for) rezoning."
Then came another twist.
When news of Springer's apparent change of heart appeared April 14 in the Pasco Times, Springer called the newspaper and demanded a correction.
"If they come up with a million in cash, they can have it," Springer said. "I'm tired of all this bickering."
"I don't want all this rigamarole that I changed my mind," he said. As he spoke, a woman could be heard yelling in the background.
Then Hinshaw, his daughter, snatched the phone.
"He did not want it rezoned," she said curtly. "He does not want to sell it under any circumstances."
Lexington Homes sued Springer in May for breach of contract. Chuck Kalogianis, an attorney for Lexington, wants a judge to hold Springer to the terms of the sale. The case is scheduled for mediation this fall.
Oddly enough, Kalogianis said, "We don't see Moe as the culprit."
"Here's a guy who's in the sunset of his life," said Kalogianis, who spoke to Springer several times as the terms of the sale were completed. "He just wants to sell the property and move on. In that sense, we're actually on his side.
Kalogianis describes it as a case of "internal family squabbling." One of Springer's daughters wants to sell. The other doesn't.
Supporting the sale is Susan Springer Linfield, 41, who stood to inherit the golf course at the time the deal was made. Her signature appears alongside her father's on the contracts. Her attorney, Hugh Umsted, said Linfield wanted to see the money available for her mother's care.
She also would have inherited any assets her parents left behind.
Opposing the sale is Hinshaw, who was originally excluded by name from the family trust, a document that spelled out the division of her parents' assets, including the golf course.
Hinshaw replaced her younger sister as Springer's caregiver about two years ago, when Linfield developed her own health problems. From her vantage point, Hinshaw said, she saw her father's confusion over the sale and fought to honor what she says is his true intention: To keep the golf course in the family.
"As long as it's up to me, it will stay a golf course," said Hinshaw, who describes herself as "fiercely protective" of her father.
Shortly after the death of Mrs. Springer last month, Hinshaw also replaced her younger sister as the primary beneficiary of their parents' trust.
Springer told the Pasco Times he revised the trust in June to give Hinshaw a 75 percent stake in the golf course. Linfield, previously the sole heir to the course, would get 15 percent. (Close family friend Mary Lou Hontz - who happens to be one of the neighbors leading the charge against developing the Gulf Harbors Golf Course - would get the remaining 10 percent.)
Springer said it was simply a matter of financial housekeeping: His wife would have inherited the golf course upon his death, Springer said, but since she died first, he needed to name new heirs.
Linfield's attorney was stunned. The family trust already gave those assets to Linfield upon the death of both parents, Umsted said.
"My understanding was Mrs. Springer was particularly adamant that Cathi Hinshaw be expressly excluded" from the family trust, Umsted said.
"I think Mary Catherine Hinshaw is on a mission to line her pockets and her kids' pockets and has taken advantage of her father to do so," he added.
Asked whether Umsted's charge contained any truth, Hinshaw shouted "absolutely not!" and slammed down the phone.
But there's no doubt the once-close family has splintered. After Mrs. Springer lost her decade-long battle with Alzheimer's June 11, no one called Linfield, who lives near downtown New Port Richey, to share the news or invite her to the funeral Mass.
She learned of her mother's death three weeks later, from her attorney.
Although the money is no longer needed for her mother's care, Linfield "signed a contract (to sell the golf course) and is willing to honor that contract," Umsted said.
But attorney Clyde Hobby argues the contract is not valid.
Originally hired to represent the neighbors against the sale, Hobby now represents Springer. He filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit by Lexington Homes, noting that Mrs. Springer never signed the contract and the document's legal description of the property was not detailed enough, among other issues.
(Umsted said Linfield signed the contract in her mother's place, as a legally designated successor, because Mrs. Springer's illness left her unable to participate in the decision.)
Even if the sale went through, Hobby added, he doubted the homes could ever be built. For one thing, Gulf Harbors would need another entrance to accommodate the traffic, he said.
More importantly, the plans would need the blessing of the state Department of Community Affairs, as the homes would replace most of the green space that planners created in Gulf Harbors.
Earlier this month, Springer told the Pasco Times he considers the deal off: He never saw cash, only paperwork.
"They don't give me a million dollars, they don't get it," Springer said firmly.
Hontz, the family friend who lives near the 17th hole, maintains Springer "didn't realize what he was doing" when he signed the contracts.
"He was at a time when everyone was bugging him for money . . . He thought someone would come in and hand him a million dollars in a briefcase and he'd still be able to go to work," at the golf course clubhouse, Hontz said.
"His thinking was not clear."
But his attorney, Hobby, said Springer's state of mind is not an issue.
"In my dealings with him, I don't see any problems with him making decisions or knowing what he is doing," Hobby said.
At times during a recent interview, however, Springer seemed to contradict himself. He said he did not believe the golf course could be developed in any way, but last year he signed the paperwork allowing the developer to seek the rezoning.
When asked about the developer's desire to place homes there, he said, "I don't care what they do with it." But he does care: "If it so happens they rezone this, Florida is going to have a shortage of golf courses," as other courses could face the same fate.
As for his current plans for the course: "I'm going to keep it just the way it is," he said.
For now, the Gulf Harbors Golf Course is Springer's daily routine. He's there from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. to swap stories and give golf cart keys to the handful of players who trickle through.
He half-jokingly tells them to hurry back. "I need the money," he says with an easy smile.
Hontz believes that golf course is what gets Springer out of bed and through each day. Losing it would devastate him, she said.
"I wish I could talk to Mr. Kalogianis," the attorney for the developer, Hontz said. "I know he looks at it businesswise, but sometimes you have to look at things on a different level."
- Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified July 24, 2004, 23:57:22]