By Craig Kessler, Director of Governmental Affairs, Southern California Golf Association
California Assembly Bill 1910 (Garcia; D-Bell Gardens) was known far beyond the borders of California. Many of the game’s leading national organizations weighed in on it, including the USGA, NGCOA, GCSAA, and NGF. Many more, including myriad state/regional golf associations and PGA Sections, tracked it closely. Truth be known, many of the game’s commercial stakeholders tracked it as well.
Many watched because much was at stake. The bill, which was under another number in the 2021 legislative session (672) and amended a number of times both under that number and its subsequent 1910 number, would have offered hundreds of millions of dollars in direct grants to developers and local agencies to chop California’s municipal golf courses into “affordable” housing complexes. Just north of 22% of California’s golf courses are municipally owned – 22.3% to be exact. “Affordable” is in quotation marks because California’s recent history is strewn with examples of “affordable” houses and housing for the homeless coming in at more than $700,000.00 per unit.
The predicate? Supporters opined that municipal golf courses were not parks, because they charged fees, and all golf courses, whether public or private, were nothing more than playgrounds for the privileged. You know the drill: Too much land that uses too much water to serve the too few who have received too much for too long. That’s the caricature; at least the Southwestern version of it. The fact that so many persons are susceptible to it speaks volumes about the game’s failure to counter it in a meaningful way – “meaningful” to the 90% of the population that doesn’t play golf, not those who do. Golf is good at talking to itself and preaching to the converted; not so good at figuring out who the dispositive audience is when the goal of the conversation is to preach the societal value proposition of golf courses and clubs in the communities in which they are located.
The facts? Well, those are quite different for California’s municipally owned golf courses - $38 average greens fee, diverse playing population, $5 junior golf, half-price senior golf, etc., not to mention that California’s Courts have consistently ruled that municipal golf courses are indeed parks for all purposes under California’s legal sun.
But if the facts of the matter settled such matters, golf’s challenges would be, well, much less challenging, as would so much else that is in regular need of good “advocacy.” And since many reading these words know that the California golf community struck out AB 672/1910 in all of its various iterations these last two legislative sessions, you may want some insight into how that community managed to prevail when singularly targeted and juxtaposed against the issue identified by every demographic, every region, and every political stripe of California as the state’s most pressing need – affordable housing.
The greatest insight? It will surprise many and perhaps even anger some. But it’s this. We threw out most of what constitutes the game’s “conventional wisdom” about how to prosecute golf’s case in the public arena. We avoided all mention of the game’s economic impact and focused entirely on the societal value proposition public parkland golf courses offer the communities in which they are located – community value, health value, recreational value, and environmental value. Yes, many municipal golf systems in California generate net revenues that are used to help fund other park programs, but while that is certainly a feather in golf’s cap, it is no more than a sidebar in the long list of virtues a public golf course brings a community in which it resides – virtues for golfer and non-golfer alike.
In brief, that “long list of virtues” or set of arguments if you prefer, went something like this. Singling out California’s publicly owned golf courses among the state’s multiplicity of park/recreation/green functions for subsidized development raises serious questions about settled California law (Surplus Land Act and Public Park Preservation Act), depletes green space in precisely those communities already deemed “park poor,” creates the slipperiest of slopes for other longstanding members of the California active recreational community, excommunicates golf from the park/recreation family of which it has been a part in California for more than 100 years, promises scant housing at very high cost, scapegoats a popular, healthful, socially and environmentally valuable recreational activity, cutting off access to juniors, retirees, women, and racial and ethnic minority golfers – precisely those who most benefit from the affordability and accessibility that municipal courses have offered for more than 100 years in California, and does all of this per premises about public golf in California that are demonstrably false.
Nary a financial or economic argument in there. A few references to some settled California law, but all else is community, environment, health, people, and “facts” offered by the proponents of the bill that were anything but; indeed, they were demonstrably false.
The fact of this particular matter – remember we advocate for facts determining matters – is that when comparing the economic and tax benefits of a 120-200-acre golf course to the economic benefits of repurposing it for residential or commercial use, golf comes up short – woefully short.
There is a reason why Los Angeles, the nation’s 2nd largest city and largest golf market (the weather is much better than New York), once home to myriad daily fee golf courses when its population was much smaller and a lower percentage of that lesser population played golf, is today home only to private clubs and municipal golf courses. That’s what market capitalism does; it yields uses of land that are highest and best unless otherwise directed by government to maintain certain “quality of life” amenities demanded by the public, of which municipal golf courses and all parks/open spaces are an integral part.
Being a paid advocate for the golf industry who gets paid to “win” as it were, suffice it to say that when I create theories of cases that I think might “win” the day, or at least advance the game’s cause in the process, I try to issue winning theories and avoid at all costs creating a set of metrics that golf cannot win. And make no mistake about it, in the matter of AB 672/1910, golf’s economic heft would have created a decision metric golf would have been guaranteed to lose.
The lesson here? First, a small fact to put the discussion in proper context. There are 960 golf courses in California. Added together, they constitute 144,000 acres. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which is located substantially within the city limits of Los Angeles, protects 155,000 acres from all forms of development. The argument for that protection certainly isn’t a financial one, nor is it one for the mitigation of Los Angeles’ acute housing shortage!
And neither are any of the arguments for the public interest served by the limited stock of public golf courses remaining in California. There is considerably more to quality lives and quality communities than highest and best economic use, and golf is very much part of that “more.” All of it – public, private, and daily fee.
The other great insight?
Roughly 3.5 million persons play golf in California. Roughly 25 million persons play across all 50 states. Their interest is not financial; indeed, they pay to pursue their passion. Their pleas are the pleas of residents interested in quality lives, healthy environments, and balanced communities, not narrow or special financial interests. They are not “interested” parties as the term is understood in law or politics. And that makes them the most powerful of interests – citizens. When golf enlists them in support of the game, and by enlist, I mean stimulate them to contact their elected representatives, golf can win any day. When golf limits itself to economic rationales offered up by financially interested industry insiders, it is hard pressed to win any day.
Craig Kessler is Director of Governmental Affairs for the Southern California Golf Association (SCGA) and Chair of the California Alliance for Golf’s (CAG) Legislative Committee. He can be reached at email@example.com