As the long legal battle over the future of the defunct Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course entered a new stage, the founder of a key part of the True Life Companies’ shattered plan for the site has long since moved on.
Exactly two years ago this month, True Life unveiled its “agrihood” vision for the 101-acre site closed since 2013. It included about 270 houses, a cafe, trails – and the Desert Gardens Montessori School.
Founder and director Shetal Walters saw the plan as an answer to her prayers for a place where she could expand and accommodate her pre-K-12 students because her current location on Warner Road near 51st Street in Ahwatukee was starting to get too crowded for her to realize all her ambitions for the school.
Now, while True Life and former course owner Wilson Gee both filed appeals from a Superior Court judge’s ruling that the site must remain as – and be restored to – a golf course, Walters is philosophical about the lost opportunity
She’s making do at her current location, where kids as young as 3 set tables and clear dishes for lunch, where 8-year-olds organize fund drives for children with cancer and other causes and where 11-year-olds book their own school trips as well as line up hotels and work up a budget.
“We just took a backseat and just sat in a waiting-game mode,” she said. “We aren’t really attached to an outcome at this point. You know, I’m a firm believer that the universe has to take its course and the doors will open. That’s how the school got built.”
Walters started the school in her home in 1996 and within three years, she had generated so much interest among parents that she built the school on its present site.
The Lakes course offered hers a chance to implement a philosophy that encourages children to appreciate and respect nature and the environment.
But the school, with an enrollment of about 265, and Walter’s hope of nearly doubling that number became as much a lightning rod for True Life’s opponents as its plan to build single and duplex houses.
Lakes residents raised safety and other concerns about the traffic that Desert Gardens would generate in addition to the vehicles that already create congestion at certain times of the day from nearby Mountain Pointe High School.
In the meantime, True Life waged a long and costly campaign to persuade just over half the approximate 5,400 Lakes homeowners to agree to change the covenants, conditions and restrictions governing the property’s use.
That effort failed by at least several hundred signatures.
In the meantime, attorney Tim Barnes pressed his courtroom fight on behalf of residents Linda Swain and Eileen Breslin, winning virtually every phase of the legal battle that culminated in Judge John Hannah’s determination that the CC&Rs required the course owner to maintain a course as well as his order earlier this year that a course of some kind be restored.
Prior to the October trial on the residents’ lawsuit, True Life announced it would build a “fun course” if it could build the homes.
Plaintiffs Swain and Breslin rejected that offer and the case went to trial, ending in Hannah’s order.
Both True Life and Gee have filed notices with the state Court of Appeals.
Though no briefs have yet been filed, attorneys representing Gee’s companies have listed three main reasons for contesting Hannah’s decision.
They contend Hannah erred in not granting their request for a summary judgment in their clients’ favor and that he abused his discretion by ordering the restoration and operation of a golf course and by refusing to change the CC&Rs “due to a change of circumstances affecting the property.”
That change in circumstances, they contended at trial, largely relates to a reported decline in the popularity of golf for a variety of reasons.
Barnes’ clients have consistently denied that’s the case.
Their witnesses contended that there are four or five parties interested in running the course and that it would be a viable and profitable operation.
They also said the cost of restoring the site to a golf course would probably be around $6 million – less than half the $14 million estimate by True Life’s experts.
It’s unclear what will happen in the appeal since True Life has until Aug. 21 to pay the $8.2 million it had agreed on when it purchased the property from Gee.
Gee has set a trustee sale for that date on the True Life note as well as on the $1.3 million note that Richard Brueninger signed when he bought the Club West Golf Course.
If no one steps forth on either property for the whole amount, both courses would revert back to Gee – who already has said Ahwatukee Lakes will never be a golf course again.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s tremendous vision about what is going on” at the Lakes site, Walters said. “I still think the school up there would be amazing, but not in a silo, not in isolation.”
She said she keeps an eye out for another site, noting, “We have no space left. We are stuck in here like sardines.”
At the same time, she doesn’t want to leave Ahwatukee, especially since it attracts parents who live as far away as Gilbert and Casa Grande.
Walter said that beyond looking at the Lakes as an ideal place for her school, she’s concerned about the course’s impact on Ahwatukee and its future.
“I think our neighborhoods are aging, and as neighborhoods go through that evolution, it’s impacting people’s lives,” she said “The bigger picture here is that if we don’t take a hard look at how we can make this beautiful community continue to thrive, there’s a beautiful piece of property right there that was really awesome.”
“Ahwatukee is such a beautiful area,” she said. “It’s my home besides a place for my business. But it needs new breath…I’m not saying I don’t agree with the neighbors. They want open space and all of that.”
But, she feels, the Lakes neighborhood “needs to revitalized” because as it ages with the rest of the community, “it’s affecting people, it’s affecting businesses.”
She admits, “I haven’t given up hope on the golf course” but a bigger question looms over the Lakes golf course because “it has to have an identity.”
“I mean,” she added, “What’s it going to be when it grows up?”
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