Bulldoze munis for housing? California lawmaker’s controversial idea sparks debate

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Cristina Garcia says that she’s got no beef with golf—not, anyway, with the game itself.

Though she doesn’t play it, she says she understands its appeal as outdoor recreation.

What she finds problematic is golf’s footprint: she believes it takes up too much public space.

The issue, as she sees it, is especially apparent in and around Bell Gardens, the small city in east Los Angeles where she was born and raised, which is part of a district she represents as a California State Assemblymember.

Within an 8-mile radius of her childhood home, Garcia counts no fewer than seven courses, including a nine-hole muni that she walks by regularly with her dogs. That many of its holes often appear empty has led her to wonder, “Do we need all of these courses in my community? Wouldn’t it be more practical and more inclusive to use the land in a different way?”

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Earlier this year, Garcia advanced those ideas by sponsoring legislation that has alarmed golfers across the Golden State. The bill, known as AB672, would modify the status of many California munis, allowing them to be repurposed as a mix of open space and housing. Garcia’s goal, she says, “is to plant a flag and start a conversation.”

Golf industry leaders regard things differently. From where they sit, AB672 is a wildly misguided broadside against golf, driven by the kind of stereotypes and falsehoods that have long distorted the image of the game.

What’s more, they say, it poses an existential threat. In a letter to its members, the Southern California Golf Association (SCGA) called it “the most damaging piece of legislation (regarding) golf to be filed in a generation.”

“I’m not given to hyperbole,” says Craig Kessler, the SCGA’s director of governmental affairs. “This is quite simply a very dangerous bill.”

Though AB672 did not make it through the necessary committees in time for a legislative vote in 2021, (the deadline for that was April 30), Garcia has vowed to resurrect it 2022. Under its provisions, municipal courses in “high density” or “park poor” areas would be stripped of the protections of California’s Public Park Preservation Act—a rezoning, in essence, that would open those courses to residential development, with the requirement that one-quarter of those residences be affordable housing. In addition, the bill would grease the skids for that development by exempting it from the California Environmental Protection Act.

What areas qualify as “high density” and “park poor”? AB672 does not define those terms. But that, its critics say, is just one of many flaws in proposed legislation that unfairly singles out golf from a range of other recreational pursuits. Under California law, Kessler notes, munis are part of the parks system, like tennis courts, soccer fields, equestrian centers and many other tax-payer supported facilities that appeal to a small percentage of the population. AB672 would pull golf from that fold, and, Kessler says, slap an undue bull’s-eye on its back.

“We have a very real housing problem in this state and there are a lot of good proposals for how to deal with it, but this is not one of them,” Kessler says. “It is saying, ‘We’re going to continue to protect all of these other activities and only look at golf courses.”

An irony in that thinking, Kessler says, is that unlike soccer fields, tennis courts and many other parks system facilities, many golf courses actually make money.

How much money? It varies. The munis in Los Angeles Country combine to net $12 million annually for the Department of Parks & Recreation.

There, as in many places, munis come in many shapes and sizes. Some turn a robust profit. Others struggle to survive. But all are part of an ecosystem that sustains itself and helps pump vital life throughout the game.

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Take the case in California as a whole.

According to the SCGA, roughly 22 percent of courses in the state are municipal, and roughly 45 percent of all play takes place on them. Those same courses are also home to about 90 percent of California’s junior golf programs.

A scruffy nine-hole muni might not be a cash cow like, say, Torrey Pines. But it helps groom golfers who will go on to play at Torrey, and beyond.

When you target munis, you take aim at the heart of the game.

Cristina Garcia says that isn’t her intent. The munis she has in mind, she says, are money-losers in densely populated areas with a shortage of open space.

“I’m not saying convert them all,” she says. “But can we rethink some of these spaces in a community like mine? Is there a different use that fits our community a bit better?”

If you’re going to rethink, golf industry leaders say, at least base that thinking on facts. Where Garcia sees an oversupply of courses, for example, the data suggests otherwise. According to statistics from the National Golf Foundation, Los Angeles is the most golf-starved city in the continental United States, with more golfers seeking access to fewer holes than in any other metropolitan area.

As industry leaders see it, such truths are what often get distorted by the kind of anti-golf biases that have long dogged the game. In its own written response to AB672, the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance, a non-profit devoted to protecting affordable, eco-friendly golf, lambasted the bill as the latest in a litany of assaults by “governments, Puritans and other scolds” dating back as far as the 1400s and continuing today, often times from those who’ve never set foot on a muni but persist in casting golf as an ‘elitist’ game.

What’s also happening today is that golf is booming. In California, and across the country, tee sheets are jammed. Munis are enjoying a Golden Age, but that shouldn’t be a cause for complacency, industry leaders say.

Though AB672 did not become law in 2021 and may never even make it to a legislative vote, the thinking behind it isn’t going away.

As Kessler put it in a letter to SCGA members, “If golf luxuriates in some kind of ‘victory dance,’ it will have learned the wrong lesson. When we termed AB672 as the most consequential bill regarding golf to be filed in a generation, we weren’t exercising our capacities for exaggeration; we were dead serious. And we hope the allied California golf community remains dead serious too.”

This is part of our Muni Monday series, spotlighting stories from the world of city- and county-owned golf courses around the world. Got a muni story that needs telling? Send tips to Dylan Dethier or to munimondays@gmail.com and follow Muni Mondays on Instagram.

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A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.