County halted in golf course purchase

07/05/2018

A Marin Superior Court judge last week blocked the county’s ability to purchase the San Geronimo Golf Course until litigation brought by the San Geronimo Advocates, a group opposed to the county’s intention to turn the 157-acre property into a park, is resolved.

In a reversal from his tentative ruling last month, Judge Paul Haakenson found validity in the plaintiff’s argument that the county has committed to plans for the property that require an analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act.

An exemption to CEQA particular to parks and open spaces is applicable to the county’s purchase of the property, but not to specific restoration project commitments the county has already made, he wrote.

Those commitments, such as closing the course to golf, removing landscaping and increasing stream flows in Larsen and San Geronimo Creeks, likely do require a review of environmental impacts before they are undertaken, the judge said. The county has outlined those projects in grant applications and public project descriptions.

“The court must determine whether the county simply agreed to purchase the property with a general objective, intent and vision, or alternatively, whether the county went beyond the plan to purchase the property, by committing itself to implementing a specific restoration plan through a different course of action,” he wrote last week in his decision to issue a preliminary injunction.

That injunction effectively prohibits the county from closing escrow on the property until Judge Haakenson makes his final ruling on the case. The date for the trial has not been set.

County parks director Max Korten said his department was reviewing CEQA costs.

The plantiffs, who banded together to sue the county in December, are ultimately asking the court to order the county to conduct a CEQA analysis, which will include a public scoping process addressing a full range of alternatives, before moving forward with the purchase.

That deal is already underway. Last October, the county’s partner in the project, the Trust for Public Land, signed an option-to-purchase agreement to buy the course for $8.85 million. The Board of Supervisors agreed to use $1.41 million from the general fund and $2.5 million from Measure A acquisition funds, with plans to secure the remaining millions from state and private sources.

To date, the county has received $750,000 in restricted Proposition I funds for the acquisition of the property and for creek restoration, and in March, the Board of Supervisors authorized a grant agreement with the California Coastal Conservancy for $150,000 to complete a public scoping process. 

But grant applications submitted have since been stalled pending the resolution of the litigation, including a request for $3.42 million from the California Wildlife Conservation Fund.

County Counsel Brian Washington said his office is still evaluating what exactly the injunction prohibits, as its language prevents moving forward on any actions contained in a resolution approved by the Board of Supervisors last year.

Mr. Washington said, for instance, that the injunction may stall a public visioning process that the Marin County Department of Parks hoped would continue to gather public input on future uses of the property. It should not interfere with the ongoing operation of the course under the county’s interim operator, Touchstone Golf, he said. 

Mr. Washington said his office will present its findings to the Board of Supervisors during closed session next Tuesday.

Judge Haakenson’s decision to stall the county’s plans is welcome news for the San Geronimo Advocates, which funded its suit with donations from over 100 people.

“We won!” Niz Brown, one of the leaders of the advocates, wrote in an email to the Light.

Yet, proponents of entirely different uses of the property, such as Brian Staley, chairman of the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group, which has championed the county’s plans, are also not opposed to a CEQA review.

“This entire process was odd,” Mr. Staley said. “But, either way, we have plenty of time to take care of whatever is necessary, including completing an environmental impact report.”

Mr. Staley said he supports the county’s proposed vision for the property, including discontinuing golf within two years. 

The county’s grant applications describe extensive conservation work: restoring the floodplain of San Geronimo and Larsen Creeks, converting golf cart paths to walking and bicycle trails, enhancing wildlife corridors, eliminating pesticide use and replacing the manicured landscape with native plants.

The county also plans to stop diverting creek water for irrigation, thereby increasing flows to protect critical spawning and rearing habitats for threatened steelhead trout and endangered coho salmon.

To purchase one swath of the property, including the building that now serves as the clubhouse, the county will likely use monies from the general fund and allow for a variety of uses; other proposals put forward by community members include a new fire station and continued use of the clubhouse for community events.

Forest Knolls resident Wendi Kallins is leading an effort to restore the land using permaculture principles and sustainable agriculture practices. She is also not opposed to a CEQA review—though she called for a “more creative” public visioning process even before that review.

“The county needs to continue a dialogue with the community about a broader vision for the process, so when it comes to CEQA, they have that broader input already in play,” she said.