Geeked on Golf

A WIN-WIN-WIN SOLUTION AT SAN GERONIMO

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This installment of the GeekedOnGolf Community Golf series looks at the fight to save and reinvent San Geronimo Golf Course in Marin County, CA

For centuries, a story has been unfolding in the San Geronimo Valley, highlighting the relationships between people and the land, and each other. Important questions about stewardship, land use, ecology and community have been raised over the years, with complex and ambiguous answers. The fight to save the San Geronimo Golf Course is just the most recent chapter in the history of an area where tensions between competing interests make finding win-win solutions to problems more challenging. The question about the immediate future of this community course will soon be answered, and the next phase of the relationship between the people and this land will begin. What remains to be seen thereafter is what will become of the relationships among the residents of the valley and Marin County at large.

An Evolving Landscape

The San Geronimo Valley is in the heart of Marin County, over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It is home to several small towns surrounded by open space preserves. Creeks meander down from the hillsides and combine to form the ecologically important Lagunitas Creek Watershed that is habitat for endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout.

Native American tribal territories – Credit: Drake Navigators Guild

The oldest known stewards of this land were the Coast Miwok people. Evidence suggests that going back more than 4,000 years, these indigenous hunter-gatherers used controlled burns to manage vegetation, promoting the growth of oaks that provided them acorns. They also caught fish in the creeks and hunted deer. Among their first contacts with European explorers was Sir Francis Drake, who reached the coast in 1579. Other settlers and fortune hunters followed, reducing the Miwok population from thousands to the low hundreds when their lifestyle and stewardship gave way to ranchers and farmers in the mid-19th century.

By the 1950s, Valley leadership recognized the need for a plan to better organize resources for the growing community. Recreation was a part of that plan, including a golf course.

The San Geronimo Valley in 1952 – Credit: Josh Pettit

A Scot and an Irishman came to America long after the Englishman Drake, each making their own mark on the West Coast. The one that most golfers have heard of is Dr. Alister MacKenzie, designer of Meadow Club, Cypress Point, Sharp Park and Pasatiempo. The other is Arthur Vernon Macan Jr.—a top amateur golfer who spent his days in the company of luminaries such as Bernard Darwin and Charles Alison, competing on and discussing the storied courses of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1908, he emigrated to British Columbia in Canada and earned his first commission as a course designer at Royal Collwood, which opened for play in 1913.

“Royal Collwood set the standard for West Coast architecture before Pebble Beach or Cypress Point,” said Jeff Mingay, golf course architect and student of Macan. “He was brilliant at routing, was a master green builder, and his courses drained really well—he pioneered golf course architecture in the west.” Macan made his way south to the Bay Area, working at high profile clubs like California Golf Club of San Francisco. His decades-long career would end in the San Geronimo Valley, with the opening of the community course in 1965. It would include his trademark, solid routing and challenging green contours, in a lovely natural setting. “Macan made clay models of his greens,” explained Mingay. “The only surviving model, which is now at the British Columbia Golf Museum, is from San Geronimo.” The course, which would be enjoyed by the community for generations to come, was an important piece of the history of golf architecture in America.

The San Geronimo Golf Course in 2017 – Credit: Josh Pettit

Of course, most of the players and other visitors to San Geronimo Golf Course could have cared less about the design pedigree of their local gem. For adults of all ages and skill levels, it was a place to get outside, connect with friends and nature, and have a go at capturing the magic of a few well-struck shots and holed putts. For boys and girls, it was a welcoming spot to learn the game and perhaps graduate to playing on one of the high school teams that used the course for matches. For non-golfers, it was an open space to walk the dog or take a stroll while good-naturedly pondering why on earth a sane person would ever become obsessed with trying to get a little white ball into a hole in the ground. San Geronimo was ground for recreation, and it was beloved by its community.

The facility had notably overcome two of the major issues plaguing courses across the country—financial and ecological sustainability. The Lee family, which owned and operated San Geronimo from 2009 through 2017, turned solid profits, in spite of the ebbs and flows of golf participation during that period. They emanated an inclusive spirit and embraced a multi-use approach to event hosting, activity offerings and tending of a community garden.

The Lees were also sensitive to the ecological impact of their golf operation. In 2014, the comprehensive Coho-Friendly Habitat and Operations Plan for the San Geronimo Golf Course was created in partnership with the community, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN). It set out to provide analysis and actionable recommendations for enhancement of riparian habitat, stormwater management, water use, integrated pest management and invasive species management (click here to see the Coho-Friendly plan). The document is thorough, holistic, well-conceived and a credit to the collaborative process of those involved.

It is worth highlighting that the Lees voluntarily participated in that process, and followed up by taking action on the recommendations for pest management, water use and invasive species management. Community volunteers also began pilot projects to enhance salmon and trout habitat in the creeks. “The previous owners of the golf course did a good job of not modifying the creek,” said Eric Ettinger, aquatic ecologist with the Marin Municipal Water District, in an interview. “I don’t think the golf course was ever the problem for salmon in the watershed.” The Lees and their partners in the community were taking action not because they had caused the problem, but rather because they saw an opportunity to be a part of the solution.

A Shift in Direction

In the midst of community-driven progress, San Geronimo was sold 2017, setting off a regrettable chain of events that has left the course in limbo. Marin County Supervisor Dennis Rodoni led an effort to entice the Trust for Public Land to purchase the golf course at a premium, presumably to ensure that it would not fall prey to developers. Once the TPL ownership had been secured, Marin County would step in, purchase the land and “rewild” it into parkland. From the perspective of a single-minded champion of conservation, this plan likely seemed like a stroke of genius, justifying the lack of public consultation and transparency. The community had a different reaction.

The residents of Marin lean activist, to say the least, and when they got wind of the Rodoni-TPL deal, they got active. When attempts to get their voices heard by County Supervisors and TPL representatives failed, the San Geronimo Advocates group filed a lawsuit to block the resale of the golf course to Marin County, ironically on environmental protection grounds. The Advocates won, causing the county to walk away from the deal. The Trust for Public Land continued operations at the course for a time, but it now lays fallow. The community did not confine its advocacy to the courts, however. They organized and collected more than 12,000 signatures to qualify a ballot measure for March of 2020 that would protect the existing designation of golf as the primary use of the San Geronimo land, unless a future public vote determines otherwise.

The faces of San Geronimo – Credit: SaveSanGeronimo.com

Reading through the letters-to-the-editor and local news stories regarding the fight to save San Geronimo, two things become abundantly clear. First, the battle is over more than a golf course. It is about the right of the people to participate in the process of determining how land in their community will get used. Second, this fight has become emotionally charged, with trust diminished and nerves raw. In violating its publicly stated principle to “work with communities to ensure that development happens for them, and not to them,” the Trust for Public Land has done damage that will take some time and effort to repair.

The Path Ahead

Why should valuable public land be used for the benefit of a few rich, white guys? This hackneyed question that the game of golf’s detractors love to trot out when debating public resource allocation is particularly misplaced at San Geronimo. The broad spectrum of players at the course, and the thousands of local ballot initiative supporters make this point emphatically. Golf provides recreational benefits to its players, and San Geronimo’s value as an open, green space and managed fire break extend well beyond golfers.

Further, the logic inherent in the question is fundamentally flawed. It implies that one kind of outdoor recreation (e.g. hiking, playing on a playground) is better than another (golf), and therefore more worthy of taxpayer support. The goal of any process of public land use planning should be to maximize recreational value to as many stakeholders as possible, ideally touching on aspects of ecology and community as well. It should not be to impose the values of the few on the many.

Josh Pettit has heard the “Why golf?” question while making the rounds to evangelize and pitch a new vision for the course. He grew up in Fairfax and learned to play the game at San Geronimo. Pettit went on to obtain a degree in Landscape Architecture and start his own business, Pacific Golf Design. He has been involved with the effort to save San Geronimo, offering his design services pro-bono. “San Geronimo always had a great reputation,” he recounted. “People from all over the area would come to play it. Given the overwhelming local support, the residents clearly still see the value in this golf course.” Pettit has sketched out a long-range plan that delivers wins to numerous stakeholder groups, and stands ready to jump in if given the chance by TPL, or a future owner.

Like the residents who wrote letters and collected signatures, Josh Pettit is both frustrated and determined. “The people at TPL initially expressed interest in my ideas, but it became clear that the conversation wasn’t going anywhere,” he said. The new owners seem not to have learned their lesson regarding connecting with the community as well. They have one website set up to gather public comments, with an air of open-mindedness. Another is dedicated to defeating the Advocates’ ballot measure. Given that the Trust for Public Land already has golf course properties in Colorado and New Jersey in their portfolio, their anti-golf stance at San Geronimo is curious. “One of the project managers who was not a golfer told me that he got emotional watching Tiger Woods win The Masters this year,” shared Pettit. Golf can have that effect. There is still hope.

For those in positions of authority and power who are convinced that their way is the right way, there will always be a temptation to bypass the messy democratic process and impose their will. This is a recipe for suboptimal outcomes and backlash. A vastly superior outcome for San Geronimo can be achieved if the various stakeholders work together, as they have in the past. The risk of refusing to do so is that one group gets their way with the land, but the fabric of the community is torn in the process. What point is there in winning the battle, if both sides ultimately lose the war?

The sun has not yet set – Credit: SaveSanGeronimo.com

It has been thousands of years since the San Geronimo Valley was wilderness. In the eras since, people have called the area home, managed the land, and used it for food, commerce and recreation, including golf. At the very least, for fire safety and ecological responsibility, generations to come will need to carry on that stewardship. In spite of missteps and conflict to this point, the opportunity still exists at San Geronimo to evolve the land once again to create an outstanding community asset that delivers immense recreational and ecological value. Here’s hoping that all parties involved take a step back, take a breath, and find that win-win-win.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf

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