State bill reacts to golf course ruling

09/05/2019

A new state bill clarifies an ambiguity in the California Environmental Quality Act exposed in a county superior court decision that required Marin to undertake an environmental review before purchasing the San Geronimo Golf Course. 

The decision led the county to back out of the purchase, but A.B. 782—signed into law on Aug. 30—states that public agencies are exempt from conducting a CEQA review before they purchase a property, even if physical changes to the environment or land use are a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the sale.

Although the new bill likely would make it easier for the county to obtain the 157-acre course for use as a park, county officials say they have no intention of doing so. “The Board of Supervisors would have to make a decision to jump back in,” county counsel Brian Washington said.

Last November, Judge Paul Haakenson ruled that the county would have to complete a CEQA analysis prior to purchasing the course from the Trust for Public Land, which acquired the property in 2017 for $8.85 million with the intention of holding it for the county until it raised that money.

The ruling was a response to a lawsuit filed against the county by the San Geronimo Advocates, a group of valley residents who hope to preserve the course for golf. They argued that the county already had determined the use of the property before conducting a thorough public review of all possible uses for the site. The county countered that existing CEQA guidelines exempted it from a preemptive environmental review because the purchase was meant to preserve open space; the judge disagreed. 

Robert Perlmutter, an attorney for the California Council of Land Trusts, told the Light that Judge Haakenson’s ruling, and similar ones like it across California, pervert CEQA because the law isn’t meant to make it harder to preserve land. Since the county was forced to lay out its plans to receive grant funds for the purchase, it would have been impossible for it to purchase the property without planning for its use, he argued.

Yet Riley Hurd, the lawyer representing the San Geronimo Advocates, said that the grant applications promised certain plans and the county explicitly ruled out golf without the benefit of a public process.

The California Council of Land Trusts pushed Assemblyman Marc Berman, who represents District 24 in the South Bay, to introduce a bill clarifying when acquisitions are exempt from CEQA analysis, so that similar lawsuits could be avoided. Forty-seven representatives of various land trusts and environmental groups across the state signed a letter in support.

“A recent series of lawsuits has created significant hurdles and uncertainty for public agencies seeking to acquire sensitive and threatened lands for open space and other conservation purposes,” the letter states. “This uncertainty has, in turn, put all public conservation transactions at risk, as acquiring agencies and funding sources alike are hesitant to move forward with these transactions under threat of litigation. By contrast, private parties seeking to purchase land for future development are not required to first comply with CEQA, and thus the uncertain state of the law is making it more difficult to preserve threatened lands.”

Brian Staley, chairman of the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group, would like to see the county purchase the course for restoration, now that a hurdle has been cleared. “It’s nice to know that little communities like ours can still make big statewide changes,” he said of the bill’s passage.

The legislation passed the state assembly with a 76-0 vote and the state senate with a 39-0 vote. Last week, Governor Gavin Newsom signed it into law.

Marin residents will vote in March  on a ballot measure that would amend the San Geronimo Valley Community Plan to mandate that the land be used as a golf course. But absent any interest from the county in revisiting its plan to purchase the land, county planners have expressed skepticism about how they could regulate private land.

Meanwhile, the Trust for Public Land has stopped watering the course while it allows time to hear from the public. Brendan Moriarty, the trust’s senior project manager, expects the community engagement process to wrap up in spring, when the trust will decide where to go from there.