Open space planned for golf course

David Briggs
If Marin County can raise the funds to acquire the San Geronimo Valley Golf Course from the trust that has signed an agreement to buy the land, the 18 holes would be history.  

If the county can raise the funds to purchase it, the San Geronimo Golf Course will be dismantled and the land converted to open space or a park that will allow trails to connect all of the villages of the San Geronimo Valley. That is the vision of a San Francisco-based nonprofit that has signed an agreement to purchase the 157 acres for $8.85 million.

The Trust for Public Land, which described the property as critical to the Lagunitas Creek watershed and to endangered salmon and threatened trout habitat, hopes to transfer ownership to the county by late 2018. It will seek an independent party to continue to operate the business until then.

“The golf course could have fallen into the hands of a developer, but now we have an opportunity to purchase the property and to restore the land, preserve the green space, and protect it as a park,” Max Korten, director and general manager for Marin County Parks, said.

Though restoration plans are still in the works, the county intends to repurpose the structures and facilities for community uses, Mr. Korten said. The land is adjacent to four open space preserves—the French Ranch, Roy’s Redwoods, Gary Giacomini and tiny Maurice Thorner Memorial Preserves—and, once protected, would create a contiguous wildlife corridor. It would also provide a way for hikers to navigate between all of the valley’s villages without using the road.  

The Board of Supervisors plans to hold a public hearing in October to gather public input on the acquisition. At that time, supervisors will vote on whether to commit $4.2 million from a combination of Measure A and general funds toward purchasing the property from the trust, which buys land for permanent protection nationwide. The rest of the money would be raised from state and private sources in a combined effort.

If the board approves the project, the Trust for Public Land will move forward with its purchase—in a diligence period for the next month—before the end of the year.

Brian Moriarty, the trust’s senior project manager, said the organization’s quick action on the course was an exception to the rule. Generally it would have taken a few years to raise all of the funds, but he said “the golf course was on a tight time frame” and the trust was able to borrow the money for the outright purchase until the county pays it back.

“This was because the property “poses an exceptional conservation opportunity, and we wanted to make sure that the community got a say in its future use,” Mr. Moriarty said. The trust has completed many other projects in the county—most recently, an urban park in Marin City.

The new plans for the course mean that a creekside site on the property that was previously considered for a wastewater treatment plant, part of a project to help address failing septic systems in Woodacre and the San Geronimo Flats, is no longer feasible. A county fact sheet on the golf course released this week explains that the study would need to be revised and new options on the property explored.

“Any wastewater recycling alternative proposed on this property would need to be compatible with the overall use of the property for park purposes, a salmon enhancement plan, and the restoration of the watershed,” the sheet states. It also said community input would continue to be a part of the evaluation and selection of a wastewater alternative.

The community will also give input on the golf course’s future. Mr. Korten said the parks department was “very excited to begin a process of envisioning its use with the community.” He said the county will work with local stakeholders, such as the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network and the Marin Municipal Water District, both of which have already done extensive research and conservation work on the land.  

SPAWN has worked on the property for over 20 years, executive director Todd Steiner said. The group actually began negotiations to purchase the golf course during the last change of ownership seven years ago. SPAWN was also interested this time around, and opened a conversation with the course late last year when it “heard the golf course had financial issues,” Mr. Steiner said.

Ultimately, SPAWN brought the opportunity to the county, because, he said, “we share the same vision for what it will become.”

A $3.5 million creek restoration project is in the works for the site next year, and Mr. Steiner said the county’s likely ownership means they will be able to expand the project, since they won’t have to worry about interfering with the fairways.

Mr. Steiner said additional benefits to county ownership are that there will no longer be any pesticides or fertilizers used on the land. “Also, the current owners have a permit to actually take water out of Larsen Creek to fill the ponds, and hopefully that [right] will be extinguished. That will help the creek, and the creek species, to survive,” he said.

In the short term, Jennifer Kim, who has operated the course alongside her father, Robert Lee, a managing partner and co-owner, and two silent partners since 2009, hopes golf will continue on the land. “We’ve been told that all employees will likely still have their jobs for the next two years,” she said.

The trust is looking for a third-party partner to manage the course under a lease agreement through late 2019. If it is unable to find a viable lease partner, however, operations would wind down at or shortly ahead of the trust’s official acquisition late this year, according to the county’s fact sheet. 

Back in June, when there were hints at a sale, Inverness resident Sarah Cameron wrote a letter to the editor in this newspaper urging the county to purchase the course and turn it into a municipal course. She said “greens are particularly expensive to build” and that the course had value.

“Not every single piece of public land has to be wild,” she wrote. “Manicured parks can also feed the soul. Marin, please buy the course and make it a first-class municipal golf course, open to all and affordable to all of our residents.”

But District Four Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said the trust’s plans have the potential to be more inclusive. “We’re losing the land as a golf course, but we are gaining public access for the entire community. One opportunity is lost, but many others are opened up,” he said.

The county and the trust were close to a deal with the golf course owners earlier this year when a private buyer stepped in. The buyer eventually backed out, and the opportunity opened up again for the county in March.