Supervisors request report on golf course

01/30/2019

In the dilemma over the future of the San Geronimo Golf Course, county officials have given themselves 30 days to breathe. 

On Tuesday, the county’s registrar of voters presented supervisors with an initiative seeking to preserve the course for golf, which garnered 10,553 signatures. 

The board now has three options: adopt the initiative, submit it to voters during the next statewide election, or order a staff report be delivered by Feb. 26, after which it would have 10 days to proceed with the initiative’s adoption or inclusion on the ballot. 

Supervisors voted to order the report, which they want to focus on fiscal ramifications, maintenance requirements, and the implications of what Supervisor Damon Connolly called "ballot-box zoning.

Advocates on both sides of the issue engaged in what Supervisor Katie Rice called “a lot of hyperbole” on Tuesday, with some comparing the initiative to a dangerous pathogen and others drawing a parallel between supervisors and the Soviet Union.  

Many of those in favor of converting the course to open space took issue with allowing voters across Marin to have a say in the local matter. 

“Turning decision-making for this to people who aren’t part of the community and may have entirely different expectations of community development is not only inconsistent with the original intent of the process, it’s a betrayal of that community’s trust,” Corte Madera resident Ann Thomas said.  

Rico Mastrodonato, the public affairs director for the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that bought the course for $8.85 million with the understanding that the county would subsequently purchase it and restore the land for preservation as open space, said he was worried the initiative could set a dangerous precedent. 

The ballot box, he said, “is not the way to do land-use planning.” 

One golf lover said “this whole county is a park, it’s nothing but open space, it’s animals everywhere, everything grows here. You have an abundance of everything except for golf courses.” 

It was a sentiment echoed by other golf course advocates in a county where 80 percent of lands are marked as park or are protected. These speakers dismissed the many environmental concerns raised during public comment as “hysteria.” 

Still others argued that the golf course acts as a fire break, a valuable resource in wildfire protection that would be lost if it were converted to open space. 

Niz Brown, a member of the San Geronimo Advocates who spearheaded both the initiative and a lawsuit against the county, said she preferred the advocates, the county and the Trust for Public Land work together rather than go through an election. 

“Let’s work out a compromise,” she said. “Let’s solve it—let’s be winners for everybody.” 

The debate over the course broke out in November 2017, when the county moved to turn the 157-acre property into parkland with help from the land trust. But a lawsuit filed by the Advocates in Marin Superior Court stymied that plan: a temporary injunction from Judge Paul Haakenson prevented the county from getting the grant funding it needed to purchase the land from the trust. 

Last November, Judge Haakenson ruled against the county, saying it had to perform a California Environmental Quality Act analysis before it could complete a purchase of the property; the decision effectively ended the county’s interest in acquiring the course. Max Korten, director of Marin County Parks, described the CEQA analysis as arduous and possibly fruitless.   

Yet Judge Haakenson’s ruling did not secure the continuation of golf on the property, and the trust has not said what it plans to do with the course—only that it does not plan to own it indefinitely. 

The county stopped paying Touchstone Golf, the company that had been operating the course, in December. Later that month, the Trust for Public Land filed a notice of appeal to challenge Judge Haakenson’s decision. Winter King, an attorney for the trust, told the Light that she expected to file an opening brief within the next few months. 

The initiative is the Advocates’ attempt to ensure that the property remain a golf course no matter whose hands it passes through. It would change language in the San Geronimo Community Plan—part of the Marin Countywide Plan—to mandate the sport’s retention and require approval from a majority of countywide voters before a change in the use of the course. 

But even if supervisors choose to send the initiative to the ballot, the outcome still may not be the hole-in-one for which the Advocates hope. The next statewide election is slated for March 2020; if the trust chooses to convert the property to another use before that time, the initiative may be irrelevant. 

“My understanding of the initiative is it would go into effect immediately after being passed—I don’t believe it would have any retroactive effect,” County Counsel Brian Washington told the Light on Tuesday.

The board does have the option of calling for a special election before March 2020, but a county press release estimated such an election would cost between $1.3 million and $1.6 million.