County says yes to golf course purchase

11/16/2017

The Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed on Tuesday to approve the purchase of the San Geronimo Valley Golf Course with assistance from the Trust for Public Land. The 157-acre property, where business operations will likely shutter by January, will be subjected to a two-year interim period as the county formalizes its plans.

“It’s no secret I’ve been elected as an environmentalist,” Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said at the close of a lively four-hour public hearing. “Moving forward, I want to provide restoration and safe access for all. Opportunities like this arise with risks and trade-offs; one of biggest mistakes any of us can make is not taking an opportunity when it arises. I’m not going to miss this opportunity for Marin, West Marin and the San Geronimo Valley.”

Hundreds attended Tuesday’s merits hearing at the Civic Center. After hearing 69 people speak—51 in support of the purchase—Supervisors voted to purchase the golf course from the Trust for Public Land, which last month signed an option-to-purchase agreement to buy the course for a maximum of $8.85 million. 

The county will use $1.41 million from general funds and $2.5 million from Measure A acquisition funds, and will acquire the remaining $4.94 million from state and private donors. 

Two camps formed around the purchase: environmentalists encouraged the deal to protect endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout in San Geronimo and Larsen Creeks, while critics opined that the deal was hurried or expressed dismay over the closure of a cherished sporting venue. 

In his explanation for why the property should be converted to open space, Carl Somers, chief of planning and acquisition for Marin County Parks, detailed three factors constraining future uses: streamside conservation, endangered salmonids and a “long-term downward trend of financial viability of golf.”

The first person to speak during the public comment period was Peggy Sheneman, a member of the San Geronimo Valley Stewards. She said the agreement with the Trust for Public Land “puts the cart in front of the horse.” 

“Please send the contract back to Trust for Public Land and say ‘No thank you,’” she said to uproarious applause from one side of the room. (Board President Judy Arnold reminded the crowd that “your clapping and talking prolongs how long you’ll be here” before she was cut off by more applause. After collecting her wits, she added, “It’s just so disrespectful. Shame on you.”)

Real estate brokers and golfers were united in their opposition to the purchase. Valley broker Niz Brown read a letter penned by Andrew Giacomini, son of the late Gary Giacomini, who served as District 4 supervisor for decades, and criticized the “rushed process.” Dominican University’s golf coach Gary Nelson attributed his team’s successes to the course and pleaded with the board to oppose the purchase.

San Anselmo attorney Philip Snell informed the board that the notices of intent were not published across three consecutive weeks, as stipulated by law. The county had published a notice of the purchase in the Marin Independent-Journal on Oct. 13 and 20 but the third date, Nov. 5, was technically published too late. “Golfers have rules… and they call them on themselves,” Mr. Snell said. “You should reconvene to vote after you’ve been compliant with the law.”

(After the comment period, Brian Washington, county counsel, said they believed they were in “substantial compliance with the law” and, due to the meeting’s high attendance, that they had provided proper notice.)

Representatives from multiple agencies—including the Marin Municipal Water District, Lagunitas Creek Technical Advisory Committee, San Geronimo Valley Land Trust, Environmental Action Committee of West Marin and Sierra Club—expressed support for the county’s purchase. Members of the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network flooded the room with cardboard posters of salmon, with one activist donning complete costume of a salmonid and asking for “more generosity and less selfishness from humans.”

Barbara Bogard from Pesticide Free Zone spoke favorably of the purchase and reminded the board of their shared goal for zero pesticide use in the county. She said the golf course is a frequent user of rodenticides and herbicides.

Amos Klausner, a San Geronimo resident, expressed apathy for the golfers. “To the golfers who are going to miss the golf course, my favorite restaurant in Marin County closed. I should have eaten there more often—you should have played more golf,” he said.

A few people spoke in favor of retaining the community garden that grows on the property. (The county later said it would remain during the interim period.) A couple of valley farmers even proposed the idea of expanding the garden and noted the rarity of the property’s flat, arable lands. San Geronimo farmer Jesse Kuhn said it’s been a lifelong dream to convert the golf course into a farm. “I’d like to see the county purchase this piece land and have an incubator for small farmers to get started, such as myself,” he said. “I think there needs to be more farmers in the county.”

Toward the end, San Geronimo resident Lisa McHugh questioned how much effort Supervisor Rodoni put into learning what the community wanted.

“This process just doesn’t feel right, like it was done behind closed doors,” she said. “Rodoni never had an open community discussion. There was no roundtable discussion to include us because I think you already decided what was going to happen. You’re tearing our community apart. Look at this [gestures to the crowded and divided room]—it’s insane.”