Judge delays ruling on golf course purchase

06/14/2018

A group that sued the county over its decision to convert the San Geronimo Golf Course into a park gained some traction last week.

Marin County Superior Court Judge Paul M. Haakenson decided at a hearing last Friday to take more time to consider the arguments put forth by the San Geronimo Advocates. The group, which funded its suit with donations from over 100 people, had asked for a preliminary injunction to prevent the county from closing escrow on the course. 

The judge said he would issue a final ruling within two weeks.

The delay came as a surprise. In a tentative ruling released last Thursday, Judge Haakenson denied the group’s request for a preliminary injunction, concluding that the “court finds petitioners are not reasonably likely to prevail on the merits of their claims.” 

Yet by the end of last Friday’s oral arguments, he had softened, deeming elements of the plaintiffs’ argument “pretty sound.”

Judge Haakenson heard separate arguments from the advocates’ two lawyers with the San Rafael-based Ragghianti Freitas LLP. 

The first argument came from Todd Smith, who claimed the county’s commitment to convert the golf course into a park without first conducting an environmental review violated the California Environmental Quality Act.

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 committed to use $1.41 million from the general fund and $2.5 million from Measure A acquisition funds, though the county’s purchase from the trust is contingent on securing the remaining millions from state and private sources.

Hoping to prevent the county from converting the course into open space, the San Geronimo Advocates asked for a court order that blocks the purchase until the county conducts an environmental review that considers alternative uses for the land. 

In its defense of its move, the county had cited an exemption to CEQA that applies to “transfers of interest in land to preserve open space.” 

But Mr. Smith said the county exploited the exemption, which only applies to acquisitions, by continuing with project plans before conducting an environmental review. 

The county has said it will discontinue the property’s use as a golf course within two years. Recent grant applications to the California Coastal Conservancy and California Wildlife Conservation Board describe potential restoration activities: 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. 

Though the conservation board’s consideration of the grant application is pending given the ongoing litigation, the Coastal Conservancy last September awarded the county $750,000 in restricted Proposition I funds for the acquisition of the property and for creek restoration. 

These commitments illustrate how the project has gone beyond acquisition and into specific restoration plans, Mr. Smith argued.

Several recent cases support that argument, he said. In one involving the California Farm Bureau Federation and the California Wildlife Conservation Board, the court ruled that the bureau’s acquisition of a conservation easement on 235 acres of farmland was exempt from CEQA. Projects planned for the land that resulted in significant changes were not.

Mr. Smith also pointed to the county’s allocation of funds as indicative that Marin has committed to a certain outcome prior to a public process that considers a range of alternatives. Measure A monies, for instance, can only be allocated for projects benefiting parks, open spaces and natural resources.

County attorneys have stated that “no CEQA review is necessary to merely purchase the golf course as a preferred site for habitat restoration since no actual ‘projects’ will be considered prior to any applicable CEQA review being
completed.”

But the advocates’ attorneys cited CEQA stipulations stating that environmental documents “should be prepared as early as feasible in the planning process to enable environmental considerations to influence project program and design.” 

CEQA guidelines also state that agencies shall not “take any action which gives impetus to a planned or foreseeable project in a manner that forecloses alternatives or mitigation measures that would ordinarily be part of the CEQA review of that public project.”

Judge Haakenson acknowledged that there might be a “breaking point” between the acquisition stage of the process, when the county’s project qualified for a CEQA exemption, and when an environmental review becomes necessary. 

The judge was also persuaded by the argument presented by Mr. Smith’s colleague, attorney Riley Hurd.

Mr. Hurd said the county’s plans for the golf course property violate the San Geronimo Valley Community Plan. That plan, like other community plans, was adopted as part of the Countywide Plan. It states that “the golf course should be retained with no major expansion of the facilities. Future uses should be limited to those which support the primary use as a golf course.” 

The county has argued that “should” does not invoke the same mandate as “must.”

Yet Mr. Hurd argued that community plans do not often establish mandates or prohibitions, but rather policies and goals, which should be taken seriously. 

Since state legislation in 1971, community plans “changed from aspiration to law” and are no longer studies of interest but rather “the charter governing land use,” he said. He cited the Housing Element and zoning rules, both codified in the Marin Countywide Plan.

Amending the plan to make room for a new vision for the golf course property would also trigger the need for a CEQA review, he argued.

“I don’t understand why you need to do CEQA to add onto your house in the San Geronimo Valley if you’re 100 feet from a stream, but somehow the county is getting away with avoiding it for a property that’s 157 acres,” Peggy Sheneman, a member of the San Geronimo Valley Stewards who attended last week’s hearing, said. 

She was one of a small crowd of residents who showed up to learn the fate of the golf course, along with Niz Brown, one of the leaders of San Geronimo
Advocates. 

Ms. Brown said she and others will attempt to get the 10,000 signatures necessary to place the question of what to do with the golf course on the ballot. But for now, she is awaiting Judge Haakenson’s final decision before moving forward.