Craig Kessler isn’t overly concerned about a California Assembly bill that could turn municipal golf courses in the state into affordable house tracts if passed by the assembly this year. He’s more concerned with the thinking that motivated the bill.
“It is more likely than not that the bill will not gain traction among the other housing bills, which actually might help fix the problem,” said Kessler, the director of governmental affairs for the Southern California Golf Association. “But that’s not a recipe for the failure of golfers to stand up and make their opinions known on this.”
Democrat Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, whose 58th assembly district includes portions of southeastern Los Angeles County, has authored AB 672, which would change the status of many municipal golf courses in the state, opening the land for residential housing.
More specifically, the bill would:
• Remove municipal golf courses from protections of the Public Park Preservation Act.
• Provide an exemption to the California Environmental Quality Act or CEQA.
• Make it easier to rezone public open-space land for housing.
Kessler said the bill is struggling at the state level and has been referred to two assembly committees, the Housing and Community Development committee and the Local Government committee. The bill must pass out of both committees by April 30 or it will die in committee for the rest of 2021. The bill has not been scheduled for a vote in either committee.
If the bill does not advance this year, Garcia could request that AB 672 become a two-year bill, which would bring it back to the assembly in January, Kessler said.
While Kessler first heard about the proposed bill in February, details weren’t made public until April 6. The response from the golf community has flooded in this week.
“Removing golf and only golf from the 50-year-old protections of CEQA and the Public Park Preservation Act amounts to a determination by legislative fiat that golf is no longer part of the greater family of publicly accessible recreational activities,” said James Ferrin, president of the California Alliance for Golf, a non-profit trade organization, in a letter to Assemblymember David Chiu, Chair of the Housing and Community Development Committee, and other assembly members. “The State of California should not be favoring or disfavoring specific recreational activities nor picking winners and losers among them.”
The SCGA takes AB 672 so seriously that it issued a letter to all of its members, calling the proposed bill “the most damaging piece of legislation (regarding) golf to be filed in a generation.”
Opposition from one assembly member
Chad Mayes, an independent assembly member for the 42nd District which includes parts of the Coachella Valley, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, expressed his opposition Wednesday to AB 672.
“There are a number of well-thought-out policy solutions to our housing shortage. AB 672 is not one of them. It ignores locals control, threatens important programs and opened the door for future tax increases,” Mayes said in a statement.
Kessler said of the more than 1,100 golf courses in California, approximately 70% are public and 22% are municipal, meaning they are owned by either a city or a county.
An amended version of AB 672 from April 6 states that, “This bill would require a city, county, or city and county to rezone, by the date the 6th regional housing needs assessment cycle applicable to the city, county, or city and county ends, certain sites used as a golf course to also allow for residential and open-space use in accordance with specified requirements. The bill would exempt any ordinance, resolution, general or specific plan amendment, or other action necessary of the city, county, or city and county to rezone a site pursuant to the bill’s provisions from CEQA.”
The bill would require 25% of such new housing developments to be for low-income families. The bill also requires that municipal courses be in a park-poor area, that the golf course is owned by a city, county, or city and county, and the golf course is funded by money from the city, county, and that the golf course be in a high-density area.
Those restrictions might mean the eight municipal golf courses in the Coachella Valley would not be subject to the new bill. The two courses each in Palm Desert and Indian Wells and the one course in La Quinta are high-end resort courses built to attract hotels and other retail businesses. The two courses in Palm Springs and the one in Indio are aimed more as amenities to local residents.
Some municipal courses are among the best golf courses in the state. The men’s U.S. Open championship will be played in June at Torrey Pines Golf Course, a 36-hole municipal facility in San Diego.
Golf fighting for recreational protections
Kessler’s concern is that the golf courses are being singled out for exemptions for environmental impact reports and from the Public Park Preserve Act, while areas like soccer fields, public preserves, tennis courts and large public parks would still be protected.
“It strips golf courses and only golf courses out of the protection that for 50 years have existed for them,” Kessler said.
The bill does not address private-owned public golf courses or private country clubs, but Kessler said the thinking behind the bill could eventually focus on such courses, threatening golf in the state.
“Because golf courses and only golf courses are separated out, it is in essence putting a target on the back of golf,” Kessler said.
Kessler admits part of the thinking before the bill and other initiatives concerning municipal golf courses is that many municipal golf courses don’t make money for their municipalities and that the land for golf courses is often more valuable than the golf course itself.
The City of Palm Springs recently agreed to pay for half of an assessment of the value of its two public golf courses as the Oswit Land Trust and the Trust for Public Land want to potentially buy the courses and turn them into a nature preserve.
But in other cases – Kessler pointed to Los Angeles County – courses make money and help to pay for other municipally run recreational activities and parks. He added that while golf struggled for much of the last 10 to 12 years with declining participation, the sport has had a surge of interest during the COVID-19 pandemic. Golf remained open for most of the pandemic even with restrictions and social distancing, while other activities were shut down by the state and county.
“Play is up 30% nationally in the last year,” Kessler said, quoting National Golf Foundation statistics. “Golf hasn’t done this well in years.”
A message left with Garcia’s office was not returned.
The CAG also expressed concerns that the bill could be the beginning of the state taking over public open spaces.
“Any legislative exemption for one form of park/recreational or open space use from the protections of the Public Park Preservation Act and/or CEQA would create the slipperiest of slopes toward similar legislative determinations regarding other forms of parks and/or recreational uses – e.g., soccer fields, baseball diamonds, university campuses, land conservancies/preserves, trails, equestrian centers, and tracks,” Ferrin said in his CAG opposition letter.
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