SCGA Public Affairs

IT’S STILL THE LAND, STUPID

Monday, April 3, 2023

Whether it was golf’s ability to kill AB 672 and AB 1910 so effectively in the last two legislative sessions or legislators’ realization that offering financial bounties to chop municipal parkland golf courses into housing complexes was a bad idea, this year’s legislative session has nothing resembling either bill. There are myriad bills giving the state more control over local land use decisions, myriad bills that further erode the Surplus Land Act’s preferences for open space and recreation, and myriad bills that propose to rewrite longstanding water rights, and we are paying close attention to all of them to the degree to which they do affect golf in the state. But there is nothing brewing in Sacramento that takes dead aim at golf and only golf the way those two bills did.

However, that doesn’t mean that golf can relax. The same dynamic that animated the two Cristina Garcia bills continues to drive purely financial decisions to repurpose longtime successful daily fee golf properties as housing, and the parallel dynamic of intense competition for limited park space continues to drive efforts to repurpose longstanding municipal golf courses in whole or part as other recreational amenities, general purpose parks, or simple open spaces.

To make sure you don’t relax, we are going to share three (3) examples of such in whole or part repurposing, or attempted repurposing, that are going on as you read these words – one from Los Angeles County (Montebello) that represents the loss of golf, but also represents about as successful a result as the game could have hoped for in terms of preserving a substantial amount of golf; one from Orange County (Santa Ana) that like so much that has happened in that county in recent years seems headed for a bad result; and one from San Diego County (San Diego) that represents an example of it matters not how many times golf prevails in its competition with environmental groups to preserve a venerable developmental facility, the environmental groups just keep battling knowing that they just need to prevail one time to secure a healthy measure of what they seek.

MONTEBELLO

When we reported in mid-February on Montebello’s ambitious plan to repurpose its nearly century-old 18-hole municipal golf course as a 9-hole regulation golf course, 6-hole 3-par course, putting course, Topgolf entertainment complex, and commercial appurtenance to be named later, we expressed some skepticism that the normative golf part of the plan had enough funding to come to full fruition, suggesting that the $16.7 million bond issue might fall short of funding the golf portion of it. Unlike the City of El Segundo, which handled the 9-hole golf course and new Topgolf facility as one project, Montebello has kept the golf portion separate from the Topgolf portion, albeit the ground lease revenue from the Topgolf facility is being dedicated along with golf revenues and any revenues that might accrue from that commercial appurtenance to be named later to repayment of the bond.

We are happy to report today that our skepticism was unfounded. Ground has broken on the 9-hole regulation course (3,200 yards; par 35), 6-hole 3-par course, and putting course, as well as the Topgolf entertainment range. Montebello invited SCGA to the groundbreaking in March and made clear that the city wants to work closely with the SCGA, SCPGA, as well as SCGA Junior Foundation and other nonprofit junior golf organizations when the new golf facility opens in spring 2024.

When we reported in February, we suggested three (3) possible scenarios, the 3rd of which was the following: “A city trying its best to maintain as much normative golf as possible within some difficult financial and political constraints.”

Well, that was the accurate scenario, and as much as it is painful to lose 9 holes of affordable, accessible municipal golf in the heart of what the National Golf Foundation calls the most golf starved market in the Continental United States, what the City of Montebello is doing with its lone municipal golf course is pretty much the best outcome golf could have hoped for, given the state of the old course, the politics of the situation, and the many interests competing to use the land.

As was the case in El Segundo, the game is best served not when posturing, but when figuring out precisely what the best possible outcome might be and then pursuing it with vigor. That, and then supporting the municipality that found its way to making ample accommodation of golf when balancing the many equities that are always involved when apportioning fast dwindling available public space in densely packed urban areas.

That is what Montebello has done here, and golf would be well served to bring its resources to bear in making the new facility a success from day one.

SANTA ANA (River View GC)

Following a clear pattern in which outcomes range from half-loaves to full loaves in Los Angeles County and nary a slice of bread in Orange County, another solid, financially performing, affordable/accessible municipal golf course in Orange County may be going away entirely in 2026. May be unless a campaign underway can reverse years of neglect in making the case in Orange County for the societal benefits of golf courses in the communities in which they sit.

One of Mile Square’s golf courses in Fountain Valley is gone, despite having been financially successful. Willowick would have been gone had it not been for the Trust for Public Land’s expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars on multiple lawsuits to force the City of Garden Grove to follow the Surplus Land Act. Given the surrounding community’s hostility to the golf course in that neighborhood, Willowick’s status remains precarious.

And now one of the last remaining affordable public golf courses in Orange County is the subject of what appears to be a popular campaign to repurpose it as a passive park. “Popular” in terms of having support from much of the local community, the Santa Ana City Council, and Orange County’s 2nd District Supervisor Vincent Sarmiento.

Click here to read the formal Santa Ana Council Resolution that commits the city to closing the golf course and working with various conservancies, land trusts, and other potential funders to create a passive park in place of the golf course that has served as one of the few in Orange County that provides affordable/accessible golf. The “whereas’s” are telling. They make clear that this is a community that does not see golf as a fit use for public parkland nor does it see golf as in any way an environmental, social, or community benefit in the same way as other park and recreation functions.

As for what is specifically proposed for the golf facility, here are the resolutions that follow the whereas’s:

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by the City Council of the City of Santa Ana, that:

Section 1. The City Council of the City of Santa Ana hereby pledges to not renew the lease at River View for a golf course or any purpose that does not create parkland;

Section 2. The City Council of Santa Ana commits to convert the land currently in use as the River View Golf Course to parkland and other compatible uses that retain its nature as open space;

Section 3. The City of Santa Ana commits to work with the Santa Ana River Conservancy Program of the CA Coastal Conservancy, The Wildlands Conservancy, and other interested parties on the creation of the River View Park;

Section 4. The creation of open space for its residents is a moral duty of the City of Santa Ana and consistent with the objectives of creating spaces to better the physical and mental health of its residents and strengthening the economy;

Section 5. Recognizing that time is of the essence to secure support and funding the City of Santa Ana will work expeditiously to secure funding and assistance for the conversion of the land to parkland during the time remaining on the lease for the River View Golf Course; and

Section 6. This Resolution shall take effect immediately upon its adoption by the City Council, and the Clerk of Council shall attest to and certify the vote adopting this Resolution.

For a variety of historical reasons the golfers of Orange County and their golf clubs never felt the need to make the case for the community value of their publicly owned golf courses, the need to organize themselves around that case, and the need to position themselves as part of an emerging demographic majority. As a result, they’re being written out of communities in which they were once a strong part.

Section 4 above of the pending City Council Resolution makes that abundantly clear in so boldly stating that it is a veritable “moral duty” to jettison the golf course not just in part, but in its entirety in favor of creating “parkland,” which this Resolution makes equally clear is a category of use that doesn’t include golf.

While it is encouraging to see that there is a movement to “save” the old River View Golf Course and SCGA will certainly lend its hand to the effort, it remains to be seen whether it isn’t just too late to mount the kind of reversal of hearts and minds that the situation calls for. Golf in Orange County may indeed be reverting to a game reserved for the affluent. And that won’t be healthy for a game that has invested so much into growth and diversity.

SAN DIEGO (Mission Bay GC)

We have reported on this one for a long time. And each time we do it’s to report that golf has preserved the integrity of the full campus that encompasses the Mission Bay Golf Course – an executive golf course cum practice center that courtesy of funds generated by nearby Torrey Pines, is in the process of getting an $11 million facelift. It is the perfect complement to Torrey Pines – one a championship 36-hole property that more resembles a world class golf resort than municipal golf course, the other precisely the kind of “recreational” facility suited for affordable/accessible play and developmental, junior, and senior programming.

Mission Bay has been caught in the crosshairs of redevelopment of the much greater parcel of public land of which it is but a small part. The “De Anza Revitalization Plan” and accompanying “Mission Bay Park Master Plan” have been through numerous public processes, multiple community meetings, and multiple amendments thereto, and at every juncture one environmental group or another has proposed something that either eviscerates the entire golf complex in favor of another use or intrudes on the golf complex’ footprint to make way for their favored use. Each time golf has responded with comments and arguments that end up being accepted by the City of San Diego and the authors of the “Plans.” But that has not stopped certain groups from coming back again and again with proposals that reduce the golf property.

And that is where we are today – another challenge to the continued existence of the golf course notwithstanding all those millions of greens fee generated dollars that are currently being expended on the Mission Bay GC and would be totally wasted were such “challenge” to become part of the pending “De Anza Natural Amendment to the Mission Bay Park Master Plan,” which is part of a “Program Environmental Impact Report” that is now out for comment.

The proponents say that the Amendment doesn’t encroach upon Mission Bay’s footprint and District 3 Council Member Joe La Cava publicly echoes that claim. However, one look at the text of the proposed project indicates otherwise. Yes, the “no project” alternative maintains Mission Bay GC intact. All “no project” alternatives maintain the status quo. However, the “Wetlands Optimized Alternative” and the “Enhanced Wetlands/Optimized Parkland Alternative,” both of which are being pushed by San Diego’s environmental community, substantially reduce the amount of land now dedicated to active recreation in favor of wetlands and other passive uses. And that includes reduction of Mission Bay’s current footprint and likely in ways that would obviate the value of those Torrey Pines dollars that are now being turned into a significantly improved Mission Bay Golf Complex.

SCGA and others will issue yet another comment letter making these points along with the points we have raised over the years about the great societal value Mission Bay Golf Complex brings to the Mission Bay and Pacific Beach communities. And there is a small but very dedicated and savvy group of local advocates for the continued integrity of the Mission Bay Golf Complex. San Diego golf is lucky to have them, and SCGA will continue working with them to keep this great developmental golf facility intact. This is not an instance in which golf is being asked to share what has long been a parcel 100% dedicated to golf. Golf is already but a small part of the De Anza Recreational Area. There is no reason to make it smaller and every reason to keep it fully intact.

We remain confident that the conclusion here will be the whole loaf, not the welcome half-loaf of Montebello, nor the vanishing loaf we fear in Santa Ana. But only if the golf community can demonstrate the same tireless resolve as those who keep pressing to do otherwise.

# # # # # # # # # # #

There are two (2) themes that underlie most if not all of the kinds of challenges we’ve shared with you today:

1.Those who seek to repurpose golf courses for their own purposes are always better organized and funded than the golf communities that seek to defend them, and

2.Those who seek to repurpose golf courses as open space or general parkland as in the Santa Ana and San Diego examples are always aided by various conservancies and organizations that are funded in part by state/federal grants, and they are always aided in addition by like-minded organizations that outfit them with a bevy of 3rd party studies and analyses that provide them with the hard data conducive of making solid cases in the public arena.

Funding and tools – two things that golf rarely has and two things that those competing with golf for precious public space always seem to have.

Does golf have the resources required to reorganize its workings to develop some of the funding and tools to better compete? Absolutely! But it won’t get about doing so until it recognizes the depth of the problem. And it won’t recognize the depth of the problem until it understands that its fate rests much more on what happens at the Montebello’s, River Views, and Mission Bays of its world than what happens this week in Augusta, Georgia.

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