California bill targeting public courses stalls — for now

Assembly Bill 672, which threatened the future of the state's publicly owned golf courses, did not receive enough votes to move out of the Appropriations Committee

Rancho Park Golf Course
Approximately 22 percent of California's roughly 1,100 golf courses are publicly owned, including Rancho Park Golf Course in Los Angeles.

A legislative initiative that would have enabled municipally owned golf courses in California to be plowed under for redevelopment into housing has stalled in committee. The battle over the bill that could threaten 177 of the state’s golf courses is not over, however. Supporters and opponents expect a revival of the bill in one form or another in the California State Legislature in the near future.

As currently written, Assembly Bill 672, titled “Publicly owned golf courses: conversion: affordable housing,” would empower local authorities across the state to seize municipal golf courses and convert them into multi-unit dwellings, with subsidies provided to real estate developers who strike public-private partnerships. An initial mark up the bill last year indicated funding of $50 million, under the control of the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development.  Through subsequent revisions to the bill a specific monetary level was eliminated.

The bill met with preliminary approval Jan. 12 following open, public hearings in the State Assembly’s Committee on Local Government and Committee on Housing and Community Development. Deliberations in the Appropriations Committee on Thursday, Jan. 20, were closed to the public, but the bill did not receive enough votes to move on. Had it passed, the bill, as per procedure, would have had to clear the State Assembly by Jan. 31. With that possibility off the deck, the bill, or one approximating it, could be refiled as a one-year bill after 30 days.

RELATED: Proposed California law targets municipal golf

AB 672 was introduced by California state representative Cristina Garcia, a Democrat from the 58th Assembly District in the Los Angeles County district of Bell Gardens. Garcia, who styles herself as progressive, has announced plans to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in the newly created 42nd Congressional district. The bill is in line with her populist identity and is intended to help offset some of the state’s dire housing needs, including affordable housing.

Among those who endorsed the legislation is Unite Here Local 11, a labor union comprising 32,000 service and hospitality employees in Southern California and Arizona. Jordan Fein, lead researcher with Unite Here Local 11, told The First Call that “During the pandemic, 95 percent of Unite Here Local 11’s 32,000 members were laid off from their jobs in the hospitality industry, struggling to pay rent. Local 11 supports AB 672 because it incentivizes converting underutilized courses into housing for our members and others in need.”

Among those groups joined in the lobbying effort for the bill are Abundant Housing LA, Streets for People, Mountain View YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) and People for Housing OC. Opposition includes the California Golf Course Owners Association, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of Northern California, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of Southern California, the Northern California Golf Association, the Southern California Golf Association, the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance and the Southern California and the California Alliance for Golf.

Concern about the bill included the vague language of the proposal, providing no clear threshold for what counts as “affordable housing,” nor for “low income.” Moreover, claims about the value of municipal golf courses to the community have focused narrowly on whether they are self-sustaining or a drain on public revenues and exclude entirely their value as environmental greenspaces, habitats and ambient cooling zones for densely built up urban areas where open space is at a premium. Nor have supporters considered the value of public access to golf as recreation accessible to minorities, women and youth that these courses provide. 

There has been strenuous opposition to the bill by public golf groups representing minority, youth and female golfers who disputed the bill’s underlying assumption that golf ground was being misused. Also questionable was the claim by the bill’s author that “In the ‘80s and ‘90s golf was on the upswing, but as the National Golf Foundation reports, since 2006 golf is declining. Golf courses struggle to stay open. Some locales subsidize municipal courses, which means that residents are subsidizing space that they can only use if they know how and can afford to golf.”

The NGF responded with a pointed statement that “this is not an accurate picture of the financial health of golf courses in 2021. Each golf facility is unique and, while some face a wide range of challenges, the vast majority are doing well.”

Supporters of California public golf see the legislative battle over AB 672 as part of a larger political attack upon golf. It’s one that has broad repercussions because it targets the game in isolation from all other public recreation. It also ignores the larger cultural and environmental benefits of golf and golf greenspace.

The idea, for example, of plowing up open space for paved-over hardscape housing makes little sense in the face of so much other, already paved-over areas (shopping malls, parking lots, office buildings) that are moribund and could much more readily be converted to affordable housing. Meanwhile, the constructive role that golf courses play in storm water management, providing tree coverage and much-needed urban space enclaves for flora, fauna and pollinators needs to be made known more widely.  

The concern among members of the golf advocacy community is that golf courses will continue to be the target of populist sentiment and sloganeering, with little regard for understanding he larger role the public game plays as an asset.

California’s housing crisis is not going to go away. Environmental pressures are also on the rise, particularly involving water use and availability. It’s no exaggeration that the political pressure on golf is likely to mount without a concerted and broad-based effort to educate the public. That will have to involve golfers at the local and state level along with industry professionals like superintendents and pros. But it can only be effective with the financial, political and expert input of all the major golf associations.