Proposed California law targets municipal golf

California Assembly Bill 672 puts approximately 177 of the state's publicly owned golf facilities at risk of being converted into land for affordable housing

Penmar Golf Course
Penmar Golf Course, a 9-hole executive course, is one of 12 courses overseen by the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks and could be impacted by California Assembly Bill 672. 

A proposed law that would target California municipal golf courses for possible conversion to public housing is now working its way through the state’s legislature.  The measure, intended to address the state’s homelessness and chronic housing shortage, would subsidize local governments in their efforts to build affordable housing atop publicly-held golf ground.

The measure has been met with strong opposition from a broad coalition of the California golf industry, including club professionals, superintendents, daily fee players and the state’s two regional golf associations.

The target of their lobbying effort is Assembly Bill 672, titled “Publicly owned golf courses: conversion: affordable housing.” The bill would create a funding mechanism under the auspices of the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development that would enable towns and counties to develop housing on top of land currently utilized by municipally owned golf courses. They could undertake such development themselves or form a public-private partnership with a real estate developer seeking to make a mark on what is widely regarded to be a state in serious need of additional housing stock.

Municipal golf is a considerable part of the California golf scene, forming just over 20 percent of the entire supply of courses. According to National Golf Foundation data for 2021, the state is home to 819 golf facilities comprising 963 courses — whether 9-hole, 18-hole or some other number. The proposed bill, if it makes its way through committee hearings and is passed by the Assembly and the Senate and signed into law by the governor, would put approximately 177 facilities (or 204 golf courses) at risk of getting converted for housing.

The bill was introduced by state representative Cristina Garcia, a Democrat from the 58th Assembly District of Bell Gardens in Los Angeles County, where she has served in the Assembly since 2012. Last month, she announced plans to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in the state’s newly created 42nd Congressional district. (Efforts by The First Call to reach Rep. Garcia for comment were unsuccessful).

On Wednesday, AB672 passed preliminary muster with the assembly’s Committee on Housing and Community Development and Committee on Local Government.

A version of the bill introduced last year included a stipulation that one-quarter of all units built under the provisions of the plan would be “affordable to and occupied by low-income households.” Critics of the bill point out that in the version of the bill presently under consideration, reference to “affordable” has been abandoned and that reference to a quarter of the housing being “available to lower income households” provides no income qualifying threshold.

Opposition to the proposed law is not just based on its vague language. Given the high cost of any housing development and the limited funds available even through state subsidy, the likeliest path for development of municipal golf ground into housing would be through a public-private development partnership with government subsidy. That suggests the possibility of a real estate grab by a private developer, at the expenses of public golf.

At least equally of concern to critics of the bill is the way it targets municipal courses and sets golf apart from other outdoor recreation activities in the state.

“We call it ‘The Public Golf Endangerment Act,’” said Azucena Maldonado, founder of Los Angeles-based, 2,500 member Latina Golfers Association (LGA), whose motto is “breaking the glass ceiling with a golf ball.” The LGA is one of more than a dozen golf organizations working to promote the game and lobbying on its behalf in the state legislature under the umbrella of an advocacy coalition called the California Alliance for Golf (CAG).

Among those involved in the lobbying effort is Craig Kessler, chair of the CAG legislative committee and director of public affairs for the Southern California Golf Association. He points out that the state’s municipal courses contribute disproportionately to the game statewide, with that 22 percent share of the state’s courses accommodating 45 percent of all rounds and 90 percent of the state’s  junior golf, public school and developmental programming. With the majority of municipal courses in California located in and near densely populated urban areas, those facilities also are a major site of recruitment of low-income folks, people of color and the Latinx community into the game.

Moreover, the environmental contribution of golf courses in primarily urban spaces is also overlooked by this measure. Golf courses as open greenspace provide considerable ambient cooling, bird and mammal habitat, flood control capacity, pollinator space and carbon sequestration. Replacing 120 acres of ecologically beneficial ground with hardscape would add to the urban heatsink effect and deprive residences of park space that is among the most utilized of all open ground compared to comparable park grounds like walking trails, baseball fields and bocce courts.

“What’s really animating our effort,” said Kessler, “is this bill challenges the legitimacy of golf to use public open space. That would amount to a legislative finding that golf doesn’t belong with walking trails, arboreta, soccer and other worthy outdoor public activities.”

The proposed legislation specifically excludes golf from qualifying for the “open space” area designated as a minimum of 15 percent and not to exceed 33 percent of the area of any housing development that might take place on the back of an existing course.

All of which raises a larger issue of the proposed law. It separates golf from all other widely accepted park activities and facilitates acquisition of that playing ground alone. Those opposed to AB672 therefore see it as an anti-golf measure.  Even if the specific bill does not make it out of the legislature, that would make for more fertile political ground for going after golf and mobilizing public sentiment against the game on purely emotional grounds.

Next stop for the bill is the Appropriations Committee, with a floor vote by the Assembly required by the end of January.

In which case, organized opposition by the golf industry will continue.

“This is a wake-up call,” Kessler said. “We’re ready.”