Article provided by Craig Kessler, SCGA
May 11, 2023
The “suspense” round of legislative Appropriations hearings is scheduled for next week. That is when the Assembly and Senate Appropriations Committees speed through hundreds of bills that have cleared their committees of reference to see which among them move to their respective floors and which are put on “suspense,” otherwise known as all but dead for the year. The second round takes place in August when bills from the other house go through the same abbreviated process to see which among them move forward toward the Governor’s desk.
In short, this is the Legislature’s way of killing bills that too many of the members consider sufficiently controversial that they just don’t want to take a vote or issue a position thereon.
Unlike recent sessions in which the California golf community had a compelling interest in amending, mitigating, or defeating certain bills, this session has offered up bills that merited watching for myriad reasons, but nothing particularly more than that. There was one exception – AB 1590 (Friedman; D-Burbank), a bill that would have banned the use of all non-organic pesticides and fertilizers on golf courses owned and attached to large resorts in the California coastal zone.
There may be no more than 6 such golf resorts in the state, but to the degree to which the subject of the bill was not resorts, but the application of approved fertilizers, the distance between applying to 6 courses and 60 courses would have been a very short and straight line. The irony in this strange bill is that golf courses outside California’s coastal zone are already highly restricted in many of the non-organics used in other states, and golf courses within the coastal zone are restricted well over and above that by the California Coastal Commission and the State Agricultural Commissioner, among others.
AB 1590 crashed before the Assembly Natural Resources Committee with a thud rarely heard for a bill of a clear “environmental” bent before that particular Committee. It was an ill-conceived bill to be sure and one that had to make legislators with one or more of those 60 courses in their district nervous, but we still expected it to pass out of committee before perhaps dying when it got to Assembly Appropriations next week. But we were spared the angst associated with having to wait.
The same cannot be said for certain bills that we have been watching with interest this session that deal very specifically with the unraveling of certain riparian and pre-1914 water rights that have long been untouchable – a pattern of reconsideration similar to the upending on the table in the Colorado Basin, where California’s senior rights are not likely to hold to the degree to which doing so could endanger the flow of drinking water to Phoenix and Tucson.
- AB 460 (Bauer-Kahan; D-Orinda) – Would authorize the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to fine farmers and others who “unlawfully” divert water that the agency deems injurious to the environment, which raises the following question: Is a diversion “unlawful” if it violates the California Constitution’s invocation of the state’s ability to control the use of water for public benefit or is it “unlawful” if it exceeds the senior rights held by the diverter? There is already a remedy for the latter under water law and the state’s codes, and that is why ACWA and others opposing the legislation are so adamant in their opposition, despite protestations from the bill’s supporters that AB 460 doesn’t obviate long-held senior water rights.
- AB 1337 (Wicks; D-Oakland) – Would give the Water Resources Control Board more authority to limit diversions from rivers by those who now hold the most senior water rights, including pre-1914 rights.
- SB 389 (Allen; D-Santa Monica) – Considered a companion to AB 1337 to the degree to which it too upends certain longstanding senior water rights by giving the SWRCB specific authority to limit the holders of pre-1914 rights’ ability to divert water when deemed inconsistent with environmental needs as determined by the SWRCB.
These bills have passed out of their policy committees and are on their way to Appropriations. The California Chamber of Commerce, the California Farm Bureau, and Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) have vigorously opposed them and tried to secure significant amendments – efforts thus far in vain. In the past, whenever ACWA viscerally has opposed a water bill, that bill has generally died. We’re watching to see whether the pattern holds, and these bills die in Appropriations, or whether we’ve arrived at the day long predicted when pre-1914 rights, senior arrangements, and the old arrangements like the “Law of the Colorado River” are forced to succumb to the realities of aridification.
These bills are not to be confused with those water, turf, and land use bills that we are also watching but watching much more to see how they play out in a way we believe will result in something that moves forward to the Governor’s desk after September 14 than how they fare in the two Appropriations Committees. More about those in a future Update.
NATIONAL GOLF DAY
Yesterday was National Golf Day. Three hundred (300) golf course superintendents, PGA golf professionals, golf course owners, and leaders of the game’s national organizations descended on Capitol Hill to share 1) the game’s national legislative agenda with Senators and Representatives, and 2) the social, philanthropic, and environmental value golf courses provide for communities across the nation.
Much of that “national legislative agenda” is rendered irrelevant in California by virtue of an independent and much more rigorous regulatory structure – that and a set of interests cum priorities that often deviate from the national game. Our national brethren seem to think that crowing about representing 0.003% of the GDP impresses law and policy makers, while our experience informs us that the economic argument is not only golf’s weakest argument, it is virtually always the strongest argument made by those who would turn the state’s golf courses into residential or commercial enterprises. That was certainly the case re AB 672 and AB 1910, and it is the case every time the owner of a daily fee golf facility seeks the zoning changes necessary to turn their property into a housing tract or something as mundane as an RV park or storage center, just to cite a couple of very recent examples in Los Angeles County. Yes, an RV park is a much higher and better economic use of land than most golf courses!
However, there are parts of that national legislative agenda that are relevant in our state. The lobbying our 300 brethren did yesterday on behalf of adding more dollars for turf research in the farm bill certainly benefitted the California golf community. And after 17 years of pushing for legislation to remove the golf industry from what we’ve come to call the “sin list,” the “Coalition” that organizes National Golf Day has managed to finally secure a bill that would enable golf to benefit from federal emergency largesse when disaster in the form of flood, fire, or earthquake strikes, as well as benefit from certain community development programs that the game has long been denied access. House Resolution 3124 (HR 3124), sponsored by New York Representative Claudia Tenney and co-sponsored by Monterey California’s Representative Jimmy Panetta would remove golf from the following provision of the Internal Revenue Code [144(c)(6)(B)]:
“No portion of the proceeds of such issue is to be used to provide (including the provision of land for) any private or commercial golf course, country club, massage parlor, hot tub facility, suntan facility, racetrack or other facility used for gambling, or any store the principal business of which is the sale of alcoholic beverages for consumption off premises.”
Now, you see why golf has come to refer to its inclusion in this categorical exclusion as being on the “sin list.” Indeed, it was the realization after Hurricane Katrina that golf was considered as offering the same the social utility of gambling barges, liquor stores, and massage parlors that prompted the creation of the Coalition that among other things now sponsors National Golf Day.
HR 3124 is a placeholder for now; it has yet to be populated with language. But it’s a start, a hook if you will that we would hope would be pursued vigorously by the national organizations that set the agenda for the “American Golf Industry Coalition.” Because it’s going to take a lot of work to turn this bill into law.
National Golf Day is just that – one day. We do the equivalent in California – a day when many of us traipse the halls of Sacramento. But both are just one day. It’s what you do the other 364 days that matters.
GOLF’S GREAT NIGHT IN DUARTE
We had the joy of participating in a meeting of the Duarte City Council a couple of weeks ago in which a very preliminary proposal to repurpose a daily fee 9-hole executive golf course cum driving range as an RV Park / storage facility was all but killed by a City Council that made clear that the rezoning necessary to repurpose the property would not be in the offing. Duarte is a 22,000-person bedroom community in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley, roughly 10 miles due east of Pasadena. The small golf facility in question (Rancho Duarte) sits atop a long-closed landfill, making it incompatible with much higher and better economic repurposing like housing or retail; however, for something like an RV park or storage facility very much so.
While no specific application had been filed or was even before Council that evening, the absentee owners of the golf facility were directed by Council to engage the local community before seeking the zone change that would allow them to sell the golf course to a developer for that RV park / storage facility. As a golf course it is worth little on the open market. As an RV park it has substantial resale value in this community. Stop and consider that for a moment – AS A GOLF COURSE IT HAS LITTLE ECONOMIC VALUE; AS AN RV PARK / STORAGE FACILITY IT IS WORTH MILLIONS TO ITS CURRENT GOLF COURSE OWNER – but only if it can be rezoned low grade commercial as opposed to open space/recreation. For that reason, one member of the City Council approached us (roughly 100 golfers, most of them juniors) after the meeting to remind us to remain vigilant. People tend not to give up when the subject is money.
What “saved” the golf course that night? All the things that cannot be counted financially that a golf facility like this brings to the life of the community in which it is located. In this case:
- The environmental, heat sink, and water table advantages of green space over hardscape.
- The quiet enjoyment provided to the neighborhood by having a green space in their midst as opposed to a parking lot cum storage structures.
- A local junior program operated by an accomplished PGA golf professional who has taught Lizette Salas and Angel Yin among others and provides $2 per session junior golf programming on site in addition to a local competitive junior tour that offers playing opportunities in the region at a fraction of the cost of the others in the region – a program and tour that looks like the Asian/Latino population that makes up the City of Duarte.
- A community beyond local golfers and homeowners that showed up to indicate the value a golf course adds to a region beyond a local community, whether they play the game or not.
What didn’t “save” the golf course? Any hint of the economic benefit of the golf course. Indeed, just to make sure that it was clear to everyone in the room, we included in our remarks that if it’s money that is the deciding metric (tax receipts too), the RV Park has the golf course beaten by a wide margin. But if it’s all the things that make living in Duarte a quality community experience, an RV park is no substitute for the multi-faceted value proposition represented by this little golf course. Getting that on the record at the dawn of what may be a continuing challenge if the Council Member who came up to us after the meeting is correct, was a strategic move to get out in front of what may be a more lucrative permitted use some other potential buyer may have in mind for these absentee owners who clearly want to get out from under ownership of the Rancho Duarte Golf Course. It also stimulated a little discussion of the city considering taking the property off their hands and turning it into a municipal asset.