Seminole looks to turn former Deer Run golf course back into wetlands

Looking out his back window, John Gembecki often watches eagles, hawks and sandhill cranes soar over the grassy expanse that once was the Deer Run golf course. Once in a while, a coyote will pop up on his security camera at night.

It’s a view that Gembecki and his neighbors in Deer Run no longer worry about being lost to homes, driveways and cars.

Seminole County — which now owns the old golf course property near Casselberry — recently unveiled plans to turn the old fairways and putting greens into a quiet public park surrounded by wetlands and ponds, where visitors can walk along trails and boardwalks to enjoy the wildlife and learn about water quality.

“It has exceeded our expectations,” said Gembicki, a Deer Run resident since 1980, about the plans. “It will be an environmental passive park designed for the neighborhood.”

Estimated to cost $14.1 million, the project would begin construction as early 2025 after commissioners allocate money in next fiscal budget, which begins Oct. 1. County officials also plan to hold community meetings this year to help draw up more detailed plans. A completion date has not yet been set.

The county’s vision for Deer Run is part of a broader master plan Seminole recently completed for upgrading its parks and recreational areas over the next decade as hundreds more residents are forecasted to move into the area.

The Deer Run natural park is one of the main priorities. The project includes renovating the rundown clubhouse into a community center, along with wider sidewalks, trails and bike lanes along Eagle Circle, which winds around the 135-acre property. It would be paid for through annual assessments — an average of about $120 for each home — that Deer Run residents approved last year, along with state and national grants, according to county officials.

Charles Honaker, a resident of Lake Mary and a member of the Seminole Audubon Society, said such a unique park would draw visitors from around the region to learn about water conservation and wildlife.

“We envision this as an area where the public can enjoy birding and hiking in a naturalized area,” he said. “It could lead to becoming part of the Florida birding trail.”

For hundreds of years, long before the Deer Run Country Club was built in the late 1970s, the property was a low-lying marsh that collected rainwater and then naturally funneled it to Lake Jesup to the north through streams and wetlands.

But as Deer Run was constructed, pipes, canals and ditches were installed to divert the water and help keep the golf course dry.

Now county plans envision replacing those old pipes and ditches with weirs, creeks and ponds to create the natural park.

“We need to restore some of that natural hydrology and ecology if we want to present this new vision,” said Pete Sechler, of GAI Consultants, an environmental consulting firm hired by Seminole for the project. “We think that there could be student projects out there that give opportunities to learn about biology and water quality in Seminole County and Florida.”

Commission Chair Jay Zembower noted that plans for Deer Run are still in their infancy and said the county will continue improving the concept.

“I love the idea of turning this into a passive wildlife sanctuary, putting it back into a natural Florida setting with the ability for the community to enjoy that asset, as well as turning it into a drainage mitigation project,” he said.

Patti Hannah, whose home overlooks the old ninth hole, said she’s “very pleased” Seminole is moving forward.

“We didn’t want it to go fallow, and then have developers come knocking,” she said. “This park is going to increase our home values. It will be a showpiece of our neighborhood.”

Seminole bought the shuttered Deer Run Country Club, along with the Wekiva Golf Club near Altamonte Springs, in late 2021 for nearly $15 million. That pleased residents who feared the green space would be turned into rooftops and asphalt. The county has continued to operate the 18-hole Wekiva course.

The moves followed the county purchasing the closed Rolling Hills Golf Club nestled between Altamonte Springs and Longwood for $3.95 million in 2017. Seminole is now turning those 100 acres into a public park too. An opening is scheduled for later this year.

As Seminole officials presented the county’s parks and recreation master plan to commissioners on Feb. 27, they repeatedly noted that Seminole’s population outside its seven cities is expected to jump by 38,000 residents to nearly 270,000 people by 2045.

Because of that increase, “we’re going to continue to have more and more demands on the physical conditions and the use of our existing [recreational] facilities,” said Rick Durr, Seminole’s director for parks and recreation.“

The plan recommends expanding Sylvan Lake Park sports complex in the northwest side of Seminole by adding more multi-purpose fields — including for pickleball and soccer — to accommodate the growing number of youth and adult leagues.

County officials also noted that smaller neighborhood parks are needed in the southern areas of the county, near Altamonte Springs, Oviedo and Chuluota.

The county estimates it will cost at least $26.8 million over the next decade to make improvements to its parks, natural lands, sports complex and recreation facilities.

“As we build and improve these parks, the value of homes and properties in the immediate area go up. And in some cases, significantly,” said Commissioner Lee Constantine in support of the master plan.