Advocates push for popular vote on golf course

09/06/2018

Supporters of the San Geronimo Golf Course are gathering signatures for a ballot measure that would require Marin County to preserve golf on the 157-acre course, which the county is attempting to convert into parkland. 

The San Geronimo Valley Advocates hope to get 10,000 signatures—they now have roughly 5,000—before Jan. 9 for their petition to qualify for the ballot, in March 2020. 

The initiative would amend the San Geronimo Community Plan in order to require that the use of the golf course remain golf. “This Measure would prevent the Marin County Board of Supervisors, or any Marin County agency or officer, from allowing any change in the primary golf course use of the San Geronimo Valley Golf Course land without the approval of a majority of Marin County voters,” the initiative reads. The measure would amend the San Geronimo Valley Community Plan and county code to that end. 

The advocates believe a large volume of signatures could also persuade the Board of Supervisors to simply enact the initiative, avoiding the need to place it on the ballot.

In November, supervisors voted to purchase the course through a collaboration with the nonprofit group Trust for Public Land. But a lawsuit brought forward by the San Geronimo Valley Advocates paused the sale. Judge Paul Haakenson placed a preliminary injunction on the county’s purchase in July, ruling that plans for the property required an analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act. 

The county had not performed such an analysis, arguing that a CEQA exemption for projects designed to preserve open space applied. But Judge Haakenson said that exemption did not apply to specific projects the county had committed to in its various grant applications, such as closing the golf course and removing landscaping. 

Though the advocates celebrated news of the injunction, the ruling did not ensure one of their primary goals: that no matter who owns the golf course, it remains a space primarily for golfing. Currently, even if the advocates win their case, there is no guarantee that the course continue to host golf. That is where the initiative comes in. 

Rolled out in late July, the initiative would ensure that the use of the golf course cannot be changed without a county-wide vote. 

At the heart of advocates’ argument is the San Geronimo Valley Community Plan, which was developed in 1972 and is folded into the Marin Countywide Plan. The local plan states that “future uses [of the golf course] should be limited to those which support the primary use as a golf course.” 

Judge Haakenson rejected the argument that the county had violated the community plan on the grounds that the plan’s language was not strong enough, so a section of the initiative aims to replace the word “should” with “must.” 

Jean Berensmeier, who chaired a committee that updated the community plan in 1997, called the initiative "absolutely outrageous. There never has been a plan where the voters of Marin tell a community what their community plan is going to say. For somebody in Novato or Belvedere to tell me what’s going to be in my community plan? No way.”

Advocate Niz Brown argued that because county grants, funded by taxpayers, could be used to fund the conversion of the course into parkland, it was only fair for all Marin residents to have a say. 

County counsel Brian Washington said that regardless of the plan’s language, community plans do not govern the county’s action as a property owner—only as a land use regulator. In short, the county is not legally compelled to obey the community plan for its own projects. 

But if the initiative goes to the ballot—or is separately implemented by the Board of Supervisors—it could successfully restrict the use to golf. 

Mr. Washington also pointed out that even if voters pass the initiative in 2020, it is still possible for the golf course’s use to change in the interim. “[The Trust for Public Land] owns the property right now, and they could stop golf use in the near future and the initiative wouldn’t affect that,” he said. 

For Nick Whitney, an Inverness resident and a member of the San Geronimo Advocates, the initiative is a way “to give the opportunity to the voters of Marin County to determine what the future is and put golf back on the table.” 

“It’s not fully appreciated how much use that golf course gets—it gets around 50,000 rounds a year,” said Mr. Whitney, who is himself a golfer. “That’s an impressive amount of activity that just cannot be matched with dog walking or just strolling, picnicking.” 

The area already has its fair share of open space, he added. “There’s the French Ranch Open Space Preserve directly behind the golf course, Roy’s Redwoods to the east, the Thorner Preserve above the golf course: all these things offer the recreation opportunities that are earmarked for the golf course,” said Mr. Whitney, who noted that he came from a long line of environmentalists. He wants the land to be as environmentally friendly as it can be—while remaining a golf course. 

Morgan Patton, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin and a resident of the San Geronimo Valley, said that although there is a lot of open space in the valley, most of it is hilly and difficult to access. 

“[The golf course] is right at the heart of the valley, is flat and accessible, has parking, and really provides for the community benefit,” she said. “You can go from Woodacre all the way to the school and the community center without having to go on a busy road.” 

And golf courses are on the wane, said Ms. Berensmeier. At least five have closed in the Bay Area within the last few years, according to news reports. She said that if voters pass the initiative, it would make it harder to find another buyer for the land. 

“If I buy this golf course and I find out I can’t make money at it, I can’t change it for other things under the current zoning. I have to sell it as a golf course. Who in their right mind would do that?” she asked.