It Takes a Community: Lessons from the Public Golf Endangerment Campaign
The Public Golf Endangerment Act struck out for the third and final time May 19 — “final time” for the 2022 legislative session, that is. The housing crisis that animated it and the false premises that undergirded it remain very much alive and well as we move toward 2023.
With the caveat that failure is always the better teacher than success, did we learn anything from golf’s “success” in striking out the “Public Golf Endangerment Act,” or as some in the environmental community have called it, the “Park and Open Space Endangerment Act?” Before we answer that, let’s make sure we structure our lesson through the lens of another equally powerful caveat: Success is no less transitory than failure. If you prefer more poetic versions of the dictum, think Kipling’s twin imposters triumph and disaster.
A POWERFUL INTEREST
With those caveats, let me suggest yet another quote from a bygone era, this one from an American whose reputation has stood the test of time much better than Kipling’s: Edward Everett Hale’s “coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”
That in a nutshell defines what I think the California golf community did in “succeeding” re AB 1910. We came together. We stayed together. And we worked together right through May 19. And because we did, we will be able to repeat that cycle whatever comes our way in 2023, not just in terms of another bill that seeks to single out golf and only golf for a sacrifice that properly belongs to all park and open space functions, but in terms of other bills, other issues and other challenges to golf’s ability to keep offering Californians a recreational activity that in 600 years has gone from a pastime enjoyed by a few on the craggy shores of Scotland to a game enjoyed by millions around the globe.
The discerning may ask who exactly are the “we” here? Well, in small part — very small part — the “we” are made up of the nonprofit associations that took the lead in making golf’s various factual, legal and contextual arguments against both versions of the bill (672 and 1910), along with the alphabet soup of local, regional and national organizations that filed detailed letters with legislative committees and testified before them. The much larger and much more impactful part of the “we” are the thousands of rank-and-file golfers who, emboldened by the lead taken by their local, regional and national organizations, let their elected leaders know that they took exception to their particular recreational passion being singled out among the rest for erasure in favor of development.
Roughly 3.5 million persons play golf in California. Roughly 25 million persons play across all 50 states. Their interest is not financial; indeed, they pay to pursue their passion. Their pleas are the pleas of residents interested in quality lives, healthy environments and balanced communities, not narrow or special financial interests. They are not “interested” parties, as the term is understood in law or politics. And that makes them the most powerful of interests: citizens.
And what this most powerful “interest” did in bringing about this small measure of transitory “success” was coalesce around a set of arguments that put all focus on the societal value proposition that public parkland golf courses offer the communities in which they are located: community value, health value, recreational value and environmental value. Yes, many municipal golf systems in California generate net revenues that are used to help fund other park programs, but while that is certainly a feather in golf’s cap, it is no more than a sidebar in the long list of virtues a public golf course brings a community in which it resides, virtues for golfer and non-golfer alike.
THE CONTEXT, THE LESSON
In brief, that set of argument went something like this: Singling out California’s publicly owned golf courses among the state’s multiplicity of park/ recreation/green functions for subsidized development raises serious questions about settled California law (Surplus Land Act and Public Park Preservation Act); depletes green space in precisely those communities already deemed “park-poor”; creates the slipperiest of slopes for other longstanding members of the California active recreational community; excommunicates golf from the park/recreation family of which it has been a part in California for more than 100 years; promises scant housing at very high cost; and scapegoats a popular, healthful, socially and environmentally valuable recreational activity, cutting off access to juniors, retirees, women and racial and ethnic minority golfers, precisely those who most benefit from the affordability and accessibility that municipal courses have offered for more than 100 years in California. And it does all of this per premises about public golf in California that are demonstrably false.
Nary a financial or economic argument in there. The “what” offered by the “we” referenced some settled California law, but all else was community, environment, health, people and “facts” offered by the proponents of the bill that were anything but. Indeed, they were demonstrably false.
The lesson here? First, a small fact to put the discussion in proper context. There are 960 golf courses in California. Added together, they constitute 144,000 acres. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which is located substantially within the city limits of Los Angeles, protects 155,000 acres from all forms of development. The argument for that protection certainly isn’t a financial one, nor is it one for the mitigation of Los Angeles’ acute housing shortage!
And neither are any of the arguments for the public interest served by the limited stock of public golf courses remaining in California. Remember, California is dead last of the 50 states in public golf availability, and Los Angeles and Orange Counties are dead last in this dead last state. Both are not far behind if they are behind at all in terms of other forms of park, green and open space.
There is considerably more to quality lives and quality communities than highest and best economic use, and golf is very much part of that “more.” When the subject is land use in a densely packed, park-poor environment, that “more” should always be the object of the discussion, and the leaders of the discussion should always be the “we” of the rank-and-file millions who play the game. To do otherwise is to act contrary to golf’s interest.