Land trust to appeal ruling on golf course

01/09/2019

The Trust for Public Land, the national nonprofit that sought to help Marin County purchase the San Geronimo Golf Course and convert it into park land, has intervened in the lawsuit that prompted the county to abandon the project in November.

The trust filed a notice of appeal on Dec. 28 in a San Francisco appeals court, challenging the October decision by a Marin County Superior Court judge who determined that the county’s commitment to purchase the course and convert its use without first completing an environmental analysis had violated the California Environmental Quality Act.

Under consideration in the suit was at what point the county’s plans required an environmental review and a public process—before altering the land, or before committing to buy it in the first place.

The county had cited an exemption to CEQA that was particular to parks and open space, arguing that pledging in grant applications to undertake conservation projects was compliant with the law. 

But Marin Superior Court Judge Paul Haakenson was concerned that the county did not account for the legacy of the course, which is described in the San Geronimo Community Plan. Judge Haakenson ordered the county to refrain from acquiring the course until conducting a CEQA analysis.

The trust, which works to enable both public and private parties to acquire parkland, described that ruling as dangerous. 

Guillermo Rodriguez, the trust’s California director, wrote in an email that the group “is appealing the Marin Superior Court’s decision because it establishes an unprecedented statewide standard that is damaging to the conservation movement across all of California. In order to ensure the permanent protection of treasured open spaces for the public, we must have clear and consistent rules that enable land to be restored and protected in accordance with existing environmental regulations, and that does not also preclude important partnerships between nonprofits and government entities.”

The trust’s partner, Marin County, has all but abandoned the course, which it agreed to purchase from the trust for $8.85 million by December 2018, or December 2019 at the latest if escrow were to be extended. 

But the San Geronimo Advocates, a group of residents in favor of maintaining the course for golf, won their suit, and soon after, Marin County Parks officials announced the county would stop underwriting the interim operator, Touchstone Golf, beyond 2018. Touchstone had a contract to continue golf while the county secured funding and made its plans.

Effective late last month, no one is playing golf at the course, and the trust is liable for the property. 

There are losses for all involved. Many residents had hopes for the land under county ownership: a new fire station, a site for sustainable farming and more. Financially, the county is also in the red; under its agreement with Touchstone, the county paid the company a monthly management fee of $6,000 and provided $140,000 in starting capital. 

But the advocates are still organizing.

This week, Marin County Registrar of Voters Lynda Roberts reported that her office had verified 10,553 signatures collected and submitted by the San Geronimo Advocates to put an initiative on the ballot of the next statewide election, in March 2020. The referendum calls for the property’s continued use as a golf course, unless voters countywide approve a change.

The group only needed 8,790 valid signatures to qualify the petition for the ballot, calculated as 10 percent of the votes cast in the county in 2014 gubernatorial election.

Ms. Roberts, who will present the initiative to the Board of Supervisors in the coming weeks, explained that the large number of signatures gives the county several options. Supervisors can adopt the changes contained in the initiative within 10 days, submit the initiative to the voters in March 2020, or else put the issue before voters prior to that through a special election. Supervisors could also request a report on the potential impacts before acting further.

The board will also have to take into consideration the Trust for Public Land’s appeal, however. The trust’s attorney, Winter King, said she expects to file an opening brief within the next few months.

The lawsuit has tied the hands of the county for months. Last June, Judge Haakenson handed down a temporary injunction that prevented the county from obtaining the grant funding it needed to finalize the purchase from the trust. Nearly $5 million of the county’s purchase was to come from state grants and private donors, but approval of the biggest potential grant—roughly $3.4 million from the California Wildlife Conservation Board—was rescinded due to the injunction.