Trust lays out plan for golf course uses

12/16/2020

The Trust for Public Land will prioritize ecological restoration and conservation on the former San Geronimo Golf Course over other uses proposed by residents, including farming, affordable housing, a community wastewater system—and golf.  

Following an informal public scoping period, staffers from the nonprofit last week presented the key points of a vision document that will be released in January, highlighting how they plan to preserve the majority of the land as open space. The only new development the group will allow is the construction of a badly needed Marin County Fire Department headquarters on the parcel where the old clubhouse sits. The clubhouse will serve a variety of new community uses.

The trust has owned the property since a lawsuit brought by aggrieved golfers blocked its plans to assist Marin County in the purchase and preservation of the land. The trust hopes to transfer ownership to another public agency within two years, but in the interim, it has carried forward the county’s intent to convert the 157 acres into parkland. 

During the past year, the trust has solicited input from the community through individual stakeholder meetings, site tours, workshops and open houses. Many people were in support of new trail systems, conservation and fire safety. Others had alternative, more creative proposals for the land: One group of residents proposed using some of the acreage for agriculture, but the vision document does not include the idea, given the trust’s interest in water conservation. 

The trust also discarded proposals to develop affordable housing or a community wastewater collection system, which the county has explored for a decade to address failing septic systems in the valley, with the golf course as the preferred site. The trust was not interested in the continued advocacy for golf.

“The vision framework is a guide, pooling together the community feedback we have received in the context of our mission as a conservation organization and our goals on the property to protect, connect, and restore,” Erica Williams, the state project manager for the trust, told the Light. “Our investment in the property is to protect it forever as open space, identifying conservation opportunities, creating trail connections and community engagement opportunities, as well as ensuring public safety.”

Last Tuesday, Ms. Williams and Christy Fischer, a conservation director for the nonprofit, hosted a community forum to discuss the vision framework document, which is not an implementation plan but rather a high-level overview of the group’s preferred management scheme. They were joined by several panelists from the Marin County Fire Department, the San Geronimo Valley Community Center, and Trout Unlimited, a partner group spearheading the planning of the restoration work.

One hundred and thirty-six acres, formerly the back and the front nine, will be kept primarily for open space. Ms. Fischer displayed a map that divided the property into several management zones, highlighting the areas where creek, floodplain, riparian and grassland restoration is a priority, where there is essential wildlife habitat, where weed and fuel mitigation management is needed the most, and where public access, recreation and nature interpretation is best located.

Trout Unlimited is planning restoration projects with the help of a technical advisory committee made up of representatives from the Marin Resource Conservation District, the State Water Resources Control Board and others. 

The trust has also allowed the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network to continue a multimillion-dollar creek restoration project, which to date has removed a 100-year-old dam and a fish ladder known as Roy’s Pools. The area of San Geronimo Creek has been a target for restoration since 2012, for the benefit of endangered fish species.

This summer, a lawsuit brought by a group called the San Geronimo Heritage Alliance attempted to block SPAWN’s work, arguing that the trust had illegally let go of golf as a use for the property. On Friday, SPAWN completed the installation of a 100-foot steel pedestrian bridge that offers views of the restored channel and links trails on the property; next year, SPAWN will continue the restoration further upstream.Ms. Fischer said the trust hopes to build a new multi-use trail system through the property, connecting it to adjacent public land; routes to Lagunitas School are also envisioned. The creation of picnic grounds, dog-friendly areas and spaces for outdoor gatherings are planned primarily in areas that already need mowing and other management. 

The 22 acres where the old clubhouse sits could serve the broadest range of community and recreational uses. This is the area where the trust foresees the Marin County Fire Department building a new headquarters, an idea long held by that department; the county’s current facility in Woodacre is in desperate need of an upgrade and its location requires first responders to drive slowly through neighborhoods after leaving the station. 

Ken Massucco, a retired chief who spoke on the panel, said the current number of fire personnel combined with modern equipment and an increased range of services makes a new headquarters a priority. Jordan Reeser, a captain and another panelist, added the trust’s fuel mitigation effort on the property has been exemplary. 

Already, some fire department staffers have been using the clubhouse to allow for social distancing during the pandemic, and personnel who arrived to help fight the Woodward Fire camped out on the property after they had to evacuate Bear Valley. 

The clubhouse itself could serve a variety of community purposes, according to Ms. Williams. Rather that prescribing one use, she outlined a long list of ideas floated by community members that the trust sees as compatible: a meeting space for local nonprofits, programming for the San Geronimo Valley Community Center, a nature education classroom, an administrative office for the fire department, a business incubator space, an art studio or gallery, a reference library or a local history display. 

The clubhouse parcel could also be used for a farmers’ market, outdoor music, a picnic area, bocce courts, a playground or a garden of up to two acres. 

Steve Granville, another panelist and a board member of the community center, praised the plans. “This year has made us focus on what is really important, and that is safety,” he said. “We see our community and where we live geographically not immune from the increasingly dynamic climate that we all live in, and so we’re happy to see there is an opportunity here through the ecological restoration to actually stabilize the valley we live in and provide healthier habitat and fire protection. The fire department moving to the existing clubhouse will have so many upsides for the community.” 

Not all community members are supportive, however. 

Wendi Kallins is a Forest Knolls resident who was instrumental in creating the proposal that some of the acreage be dedicated for agriculture. “I’m disappointed but I’m not surprised,” she said. “I read the handwriting on the wall a long time ago that they were not going to follow our lead. There’s nothing new or creative that was going to be introduced.”

Ms. Kallins and others proposed plans to recreate a no-tillage demonstration farm or else an education center, citing the valley’s agricultural heritage. 

The trust’s decision not to host a community wastewater system on the property poses a challenge for the county. A feasibility report completed in 2017 used the property as its primary site. Environmental health project manager Dr. Arti Kundu said the county had been planning to conduct an environmental impact report; she wasn’t sure what would happen to the project now. 

The use of the property has caused significant grief over the past three years. In 2017, the county announced plans to raise money to purchase the course in collaboration with the trust, which fronted the money, but a group that sought to preserve golf sued. 

A Marin County Superior Court judge ruled in 2018 that the county had violated the California Environmental Quality Act by committing funds to change the use before conducting an environmental analysis, which includes gathering public input. The county responded that doing so was cost-prohibitive; it had already lost opportunities for grant monies during the litigation. 

Last year, 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. A.B. 782, signed into law in August 2019, states that public agencies are exempted 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.

Ms. Fischer said the trust will help carry out the plans outlined in the vision document no matter which public agency ultimately owns the property, though the group likely won’t have a formalized partnership. Conservation projects would not be implemented by the trust or another entity without a CEQA review. 

“We are going to work hard to find that long-term owner. But we are also here for the long haul: We consider ourselves a partner with this community and we take our responsibilities very seriously,” Ms. Fischer said.