Public Policy Changes: So Far So Good Isn’t Going to be Good Enough
Just when some thought it might be safe to go back into the water, we were awakened the day after the July 4 holiday to an editorial in the Southern California News Group’s newspapers (SCNG) advocating for the resurrection of AB 1910. Its title: “Why not turn golf courses into homes?”
Among those newspapers were the Los Angeles Daily News, Long Beach Press Telegram, Riverside Press Enterprise, Pasadena Star News, South Bay Daily Breeze and Orange County Register — a wide swath of Southern California to say the least. And this from a group of newspapers that didn’t issue so much as a peep when AB 672 and AB 1910 were live bills, which certainly raises questions about the timing. Was this just all about a certain libertarian think tank’s (Reason Foundation) influence with the SCNG Editorial Board?
The Reason Foundation has long objected to publicly owned/operated functions of all kinds, very much including municipal parkland golf courses, and the editorial was chock full of the typical canards about municipal golf courses being subsidized as opposed to being the subsidizer, being the playgrounds of the rich as opposed to offering golf at an average greens fee of $38 and representing a large encumbrance of public land, as opposed to being the speck that it is compared to the various encumbrances such as the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, whose 155,000 acres of undevelopable land in the state’s largest city dwarfs the acreage encumbered by ALL of California’s golf courses combined.
Whatever the reason, whatever the motivation, it behooves the California golf community to figure out the who, what and why of this. Something prompted this. Someone prompted this. Whatever the motivation or reason, one thing is certain. That editorial not only breathed life back into the notion of singling golf — and only golf — out among all the various park and open space activities to help mitigate what golf agrees is an acute housing shortage in this state. It expressed out loud what many have been privately thinking ever since AB 1910 flamed out.
What golf should find particularly alarming is that libertarians in general and the Reason Foundation in specific are not from that corner of the political aisle that prompted AB 672/1910 in the first place. Whether this specific issue, or one of the many issues surrounding golf’s various intersections with water, energy and the environment, golf must remain cognizant that persons on various points of the political spectrum find golf’s use of land a low priority. Some because they seek higher and better economic or social uses for it; some like the Reason Foundation because they are philosophically opposed to government providing services that are also provided by the private sector.
In the Spring issue of FORE, I wrote the following about AB 1910 in a much larger article about the game often failing to see what’s under its nose: “You only surprise people once, particularly people who are active in politics. As laws keep evolving to prefer housing over parks, open space and recreation, golf cannot be content to merely duplicate last year’s campaign and expect the same successful result.”
NEW OBSTACLES AHEAD
I am not happy to report that for the most part golf has rested, content to think it can simply fend off assaults on its turf (literally) by doing the same thing the same way and assuming that those with different ideas about golf’s place in California will also do the same thing the same way in response.
Lest you think that offering public subsidies to convert one-fourth of the state’s golf stock into housing is the only issue of potential “existential” impact the game need worry about heading into 2024, allow me to remind you that the reason the statewide golf community filed letters of support for bills in this last legislative session banning the use of potable water to irrigate “ornamental” or “non-functional” turf was those bills’ explicit language categorizing golf courses as part of the “recreational” and “functional” uses of turf exempt from the proscription.
One of the bills (AB 1573) enshrined that language into the state’s Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO), which sets the minimum standard that planning agencies must follow when permitting new constructions and reconstructions. Since all it takes for a golf course to qualify as a “reconstruction” is an irrigation upgrade or a set of greens replacements, making clear that the turf upon which the game is played is part of the class of turf uses deemed “recreational” and/or “functional” under California law is arguably more impactful than a successful AB 1910.
I trust that many reading this understand that there are many in this state and many organizations that believe that climatic changes, in combination with chronic water shortages, merit golf’s removal from that class of turf uses sufficiently important to the well-being of communities to continue to be exempt in the same way that other Special Landscapes are.
Would golf be completely excommunicated in one bill or one set of bills? That would be very unlikely. But death by small pricks over multiple legislative sessions and regulatory rulemaking processes is well within the bounds of possibility.
Golf did manage to make and then successfully execute the public policy case against AB 1910. Golf has thus far managed to protect those key features of California law that keeps golf firmly placed in that class of turf uses considered to be of sufficient social/community utility as to merit clear distinction from nonfunctional, non-recreational, frivolous uses.
So far, so good. But with so much at stake regarding both, golf must ask itself whether so far, so good is going to be good enough, given pressures on the game’s land and water use that are only going to grow.