1.3 : 1 or it’s tough to grow a game without places to grow it

Article provided by Craig Kesser, SCGA

One and one-third human beings is what a maxed-out golf course puts on one acre of open space under current COVID restrictions, a 1.3 to 1 ratio that has been the game’s ticket to spectacular success during the pandemic.  It’s the unshakable fact about the game that persuaded public policy makers that golf is among the safest forms of outdoor recreation; indeed, the safest when one considers that unlike other outdoor recreational activities, the business model of golf involves strict control over ingress and egress. 

To be 100% accurate, golf doesn’t place 1.3 persons all by themselves on that 1 acre.  Four persons share a hole, which does put them in proximity on tees and greens, but if there is an easier place to guarantee 6 feet of separation than a tee or a green, we’d like to know. 

For all of these reasons golf never ceased play in some of California’s counties, most notable among them Sacramento County, and where it did cease, it was interrupted for no more than 4-7 weeks, and less out of concern for safety than politics.

Everyone knows the numbers.  Golf is up 30% across the nation.  With less competition from other activities and a fresh reminder to those who forgot the intrinsic virtues of a good walk enhanced, the game’s biggest problem at the moment is where to put all the persons who want to play. 

Nice problem if you can get it says the industry!  The NGF and others are downright giddy at the game’s sudden reversal of fortune, and all talk is about how to keep as much of the unmerited bounty as the industry can once things get back to some semblance of normality. 

But in what can only qualify as the very definition of irony, the 1.3 to 1 ratio that is the driving force behind all this giddiness is the very force behind what is the game’s biggest challenge.  One and one-third persons per acre may be ideally suited to life in a pandemic, but from the vantage of those concerned with affordable housing, homelessness, park poor neighborhoods, open space, soccer fields, little league diamonds, nature preserves and other acute needs in the state’s urban/suburban areas, one and one-third persons per acre of limited publicly owned space is too much space dedicated to too few persons.  And when the “persons” are often mischaracterized as “elite” and/or “rich” the public space is seen as being reserved for a subset of a subset. 

Up until now the challenges to municipal golf courses have come from the myriad constituencies interested in repurposing them for other recreational purposes.  Golf’s ace in that particular hole has been its financial superiority.  While all other recreational uses hemorrhage money, golf, at least in the urban areas where these challenges are most acute, either recovers costs of operation or generates revenues over and above those costs.  And then there are the substantial sums it takes to convert a golf course to another use; policy makers don’t really understand those enormous costs until they have a reason to know them.

Why “up until now?”  The simple answer is the filing of AB 672 last week (Garcia; D-Bell Gardens).  It’s a placeholder bill in the sense that it begs certain actions in order to achieve its aims, which are outlined at the top of this story but bear repeating again:  

It is the intent of the Legislature to enact subsequent legislation that would enable the use of underutilized golf courses for open space and affordable housing.”       

The “open space” provision is a red herring – a sop really to distract attention from the aim of the bill.  California’s Surplus Land and Park Preservation Acts already permit the conversion of municipal golf courses to open space uses; indeed, all public recreational uses.  “Subsequent legislation” in the form of municipal golf courses being made an exception to the Park Preservation Act is the aim of this bill, a form of which was introduced two years ago before being pulled back upon the receipt of initial opposition from legislative committee staffers. 

The author, whose District encompasses a large number of municipally owned golf properties, obviously finds today’s political climate more favorable for the conversions made possible by her bill.  Given COVID, skyrocketing homelessness, and spiking housing costs, that seems a plausible conclusion.  Whether the climate is sufficiently hospitable to put something like this over the top and into law and/or whether the opposition remains sufficiently strong to again nix the notion; these are matters that remain to be seen.  Golf certainly has a strong interest in nixing the notion, as well may many of the state’s major municipal golf stakeholders.     

Win or lose re AB 672, the predicate underlying the bill is the 1.3 to 1 ratio.  More specifically, it’s the fact that while a maxed-out golf course may strike golfers as a phenomenon about which to be giddy, it strikes Assembly Member Cristina Garcia and myriad others as the very definition of underutilization.  We’ll bet anything that most of you who read Section 1 of AB 672 concluded that “underutilized” connoted a financially underperforming golf course, not one performing at maximum capacity.  Think again and then consider the implications to the degree to which the thinking suffusing the bill and its backers represents the thinking of a majority of the population.

The immediate danger posed by AB 672 would not be to the municipal golf properties in the tonier areas.  Those neighborhoods tend to defend the virtues of the green space a local public golf course provides.  It’s the neighborhoods that have been categorized as “park poor,” where affordable housing is an acute concern, that’s where AB 672 would cause grief.  And these are the facilities where virtually all of the game’s hopes for broadening and diversifying its base are invested.  Strike that – where the game’s needs are invested if it hopes to remain relevant and growing as demographics change.

But the greater danger to the game, as if the above were not enough, is the much longer term danger posed by the verdict implicit in a successful AB 672 that dedicating 100 plus acres of green space to a golf course represents an underutilization of public space.  It is a straight line from that verdict to parallel challenges in the private sphere.  Not in the sense of expropriating privately held property; there are the small matters of the 5th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution among other legal protections to guard against that.  But to the degree to which these “Updates” in 2020 sought to educate Southern California’s private clubs about the protections regarding the property tax assessment valuation criteria enshrined in ARTICLE XIII, Section 10 of the California Constitution, we trust you understand that while the body politic cannot expropriate, it can levy high taxes for the privileges associated with encumbering large tracts of property.  Just as laws can be amended, so can Constitutional provisions, albeit the latter are much more difficult to execute.   

Lest you think this is a phenomenon limited to financially challenged neighborhoods, please be aware that the City of Arcadia is openly considering how the sale of that city’s longstanding 3-par cum driving range complex could solve much of the city’s pension debt crisis, a “crisis” we might add faced by virtually all of California’s cities and counties to one degree or another:

Arcadia is one of Southern California’s most affluent cities – million-dollar homes, a massive retail mall, plenty of hotels, and a major racetrack among other taxable features.  It is hardly a den of anti-golf animus.  Indeed, Arcadia’s Mayor was practically teary eyed at having to consider the sale of a facility that has brought so much joy to him and his family.  But consider it he must, according to his understanding of the fiduciary duties he assumed upon becoming Mayor.

Arcadia, Pasadena, La Verne, Garden Grove, Carson, Ventura, Fountain Valley, Palm Springs, San Rafael, Santa Rosa, Ukiah, Pico Rivera – just a few of the places where such discussions have been ongoing.  The game has been able to marshal its woefully meager advocacy resources to deal effectively with many of them – sometimes with great results, sometimes with limited results.  But they are coming faster and faster, and they may well start coming very soon without benefit of protections from the Surplus Land Act and Park Preservation Act. 

Old arrangements, old arguments, and old strategies are not going to suffice to calm this storm.  Golf gets its collective act together or it faces the loss of the very facilities it needs to sustain itself over time.  It’s tough to grow a game without places to grow it.