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Fore Play

golf course
Games People Play: When the county revised its general plan, it left hillsides and many agricultural areas open for potential golf course development.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Despite a growing market, there's almost nowhere left to put golf courses in the valley's cities. There's only the open space of the region's remaining hillsides and agricultural areas. Environmentalists are quick to point out that there's nothing green about putting greens. Do we really need more golf courses that badly?

By Will Harper

EARLY TUESDAY morning, 75-year-old San Jose native Carmine Moreali gets ready for his weekly golf game. After a slice of toast and his morning paper, Moreali ambles out to the garage to collect his playing shoes, leather gloves, hat and golf clubs. He throws the clubs into the trunk of his '85 Cadillac and heads five miles from his eastside San Jose home over to the county-owned Spring Valley Golf Course in Milpitas. Moreali, a retired insurance broker, has been hitting the links for 30 years to play his favorite sport--a sport he once thought of as "a sissy game." These days his handicap is 10 strokes higher than it used to be. Age, Moreali explains. It doesn't bother him, though. Golfing is a chance to get outdoors and exercise, and he can play even if his buddies can't make it.

It's been just a few years since Moreali started golfing regularly at Spring Valley. San Jose Muni is closer, but it's too crowded. In his time golfing, he's seen courses come and go--mostly go. The Rancho Verde Golf Course, the first course he regularly played, is now the Rancho Verde Apartments. Eastridge Shopping Center now sits where the 18-hole Hillview Golf Course previously stood. Dixon Landing now holds condominiums. Calero was replaced by industrial development. "How can you remember all that and you can't even remember how to balance a checkbook?" his wife chides him.

Over the past 20 years some 13 golf courses in the Santa Clara Valley have been converted to other urban uses, local golf enthusiasts like Moreali say. The conversions have left a much-publicized shortage of golf courses in the region. According to the National Golf Foundation, as of 1995 the San Jose region had the seventh-lowest number of golf holes per capita in the country. Nearby public courses, at least the well-maintained ones, are regularly packed, with some averaging 100,000 rounds of golf a year. A 1991 study suggested that by 1995 demand could support eight more courses in San Jose alone. Silicon Valley's growing population, high-tech workers' burgeoning wallets and the favorable climate suggest this is prime golf territory. The troubling trend is that more developers are finding the best and most economical places to build new golf courses exist on the Valley's green hillsides or rural farmland.

MANY OF the golf courses converted over the years were accessible and centrally located. Now, there's generally not enough open land in those central locations to build a golf course. Even if there were land, a developer can make a lot more money in an urban area selling houses instead of tee times. Cheaper open land can be more easily found on the outlying hillsides and in the county's rural agricultural areas--the very places policymakers and voters have said they want to protect from unwanted urbanization. "The only places where [building] golf courses makes economic sense ... is out in the areas beyond the developed urban boundaries, where the pressures for developing for different uses are slim to nonexistent because no one's going to let them build housing or an industrial plant out there," says San Jose Deputy City Manager Darrell Dearborn, who's been working on getting a new municipal golf course built in the city. About the only way to get a public golf course built within the valley's urban boundaries is if the land is owned by a government agency, Dearborn says.

Some of the golf course developments approved or proposed in recent years include Eagle Ridge, Shappell Industries' 600-acre semi-private 18-hole course and residential community that replaced the O'Connor Ranch in the western foothills of Gilroy; Riverside Golf Course in the Coyote Valley, where landowners Castle & Cooke Homes are hoping to add another 18 holes; and Lion's Gate, a planned 18-hole golf course with 40 luxury homes to be built in rural San Martin. A controversial proposal by Pat Denevi to build an 18-hole private golf course in the Los Gatos mountains above the Lexington Reservoir was rejected by the county Board of Supervisors. And in the saga of Boulder Ridge, Rocke Garcia's semiprivate golf course for Almaden Valley, it appears as if Garcia may get his way.

AT FIRST glance, nothing could seem more natural than golf courses in the countryside. Their big, rolling greens probably come closer to any city dweller's image of "natural" than a shopping mall. But the sweet smell of newly mowed turf is deceptive. Golf courses have a reputation for being punishing to the environment, traditionally consuming tremendous amounts of water and carcinogenic pesticides to maintain their lawns. An oft-quoted 1994 report by New York Attorney General G. Oliver Koppel concluded that golf courses on Long Island used four to seven times more pesticides per acre than food crops. Native vegetation often has been replaced with exotic plants and trees that can't support native wildlife.

In recent years the golf industry, sensitive to the criticisms of environmentalists, has tried hard to be more eco-friendly. Golf course architects now design courses to preserve native trees and grasses as much as possible. The additional native rough grass in new golf courses actually makes the game tougher on beginners but pleases nature-lovers. Extensive turf studies have identified more drought- and disease-resistant grasses that don't require as much water or pesticides. Palo Alto­based golf architect Don Knott says new computer-controlled irrigation systems measure the amount of rainfall and reduce lawn sprinkling accordingly, keeping water usage at a minimum.

LOCAL environmentalists readily acknowledge that golf courses designed in the past 10 to 15 years tend to have "enlightened management" who limit water and pesticide use for both economic and environmental reasons. Like many other environmentalists, Julia Bott, director of the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club, says the key issue these days is not how a golf course is built, but where it's built. "A well-designed golf course in a bad area is still a bad development," Bott says. Building a golf course requires massive soil grading, especially on a hillside. Once that hillside is gone, it's gone forever.

When the county revised its general plan a few years ago, environmentalists wanted the plan to prohibit golf course development on the hillsides. That didn't happen. The plan, however, did prohibit new golf courses in an agriculture preserve southeast of Gilroy. The fate of the rest of the county's agricultural land was left unresolved. Politicians like Gilroy Mayor Don Gage don't see anything wrong or incompatible with putting golf courses in rural agricultural areas. "I'd rather have a golf course than a bunch of houses," Gage reasons. Bott counters that golf courses often attract housing developers lured by the prospect of building and selling homes next to such a recreational amenity. In a rural area, nearby cities might have to extend infrastructure like sewage and water-lines to get the golf course running. And once it's in place, there is an irresistible temptation to let developers hook into it, open-space advocates argue.

Owen Byrd of the Greenbelt Alliance, the Bay Area's land conservation and urban planning organization, criticizes county officials for not settling the golf course controversy once and for all. Byrd wants local governments to identify urban opportunity sites for new golf courses in industrial areas, for example, rather than convert productive agricultural land. After those opportunity sites were identified, Byrd says, all other land would be off-limits.

But the golf course issue is too much of a political hot potato for local decision-makers, Byrd sighs. The county's latest planning effort to identify appropriate land uses in a hunk of its agricultural zone won't address the issue of golf course development. True, a special county committee recently came up with nonbinding environmental design guidelines for new golf courses--a step in the right direction, but not the kind of restrictions the county imposes on new housing development.

Golf course development, Byrd predicts, will probably remain a source of great contention in coming years without firm protections. "We have a large political consensus and legal protections against suburban subdivision of county lands, but we have no such consensus or protections regarding new golf courses," Byrd says.

GOLF INDUSTRY consultant Bob Murphy has little patience for "environmental wackos" who oppose golf course development out of hand. Murphy, a broadcaster for Stanford football and basketball, observes that historically in the Santa Clara Valley the force of growth has eaten up golf courses rather than golf courses instigating growth.

Golf course architect Don Knott agrees. "Most golf developers go where there are no golf courses. They follow demand rather than precede it," says Knott, vice president of the Robert Trent Jones Company. Furthermore, Knott says, golf courses can replace harsher land uses such as cattle grazing or, in the case of the acclaimed Spanish Bay Golf Course, a sand quarry. Santa Clara's municipal golf course sits on top of the city's old landfill. Besides, says Knott, these days it's common not only to leave wetlands in place, but to add new ones when designing a course.

But another troubling question remains about golf course development here: Why take the chance of screwing up the hillsides or agricultural land to accommodate what remains, or is at least perceived as, a rich man's sport? The golf industry likes to say this is a stereotype that's disproved by the growing number of public golf courses being built and the younger generation of golfers exemplified by the ever-popular Tiger Woods.

A 1991 golf course feasibility study by the city of San Jose says the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to play golf, with the greatest participation among households making more than $75,000 a year. (Silicon Valley's healthy income statistics are one reason why the region should have such a strong golf market, the study says.) And you have to be rich to join some of the golf country clubs around here: Membership in the San Jose Country Club costs $35,000 plus $260 monthly dues; membership in the Almaden Golf & Country Club hovers around $60,000; and dues for the Los Altos Country Club soar to more than $100,000.

Murphy says not building golf courses isn't going to make the game any more accessible. To the contrary, fewer golf courses mean higher green fees. To its credit, the Board of Supervisors has previously expressed a preference for more affordable public golf courses.

Carmine Moreali also disputes that golf is a rich man's game--and the retired insurance broker is living proof that it isn't. He tees off once a week for about $32, a price that includes a motorized golf cart.

While Moreali dismisses environmentalists who oppose golf course development, he actually shares their desire to retain existing golf courses and not let them be replaced with housing or whatnot. Moreali has been lobbying the city of San Jose to acquire the deteriorating Pleasant Hill Golf Course and operate it as a municipal course. In the past few years, the owners have applied to convert the course into residential housing but were repeatedly denied by the Planning Commission and the San Jose City Council.

Buying Pleasant Hill could be a long shot, although Moreali says he's enlisted the support of some councilmembers. More promising is that after more than a decade of red tape and false starts, the city appears close to building a 75-acre public golf course near Coyote Creek.

In the meantime, pressure to build on the county's hillsides and in rural zones will likely continue--golf course development included. Perhaps nostalgics should just accept the inevitable. A new golf course is better than a bunch of houses, right?

As a UC-Berkeley agricultural economist was quoted as saying not too long ago, the valley should preserve its unique high-value crops but forget about those crops produced elsewhere. "California may benefit if you grow a golf course as a crop. A lot of the guys who don't want to pick [crops] wouldn't mind being caddies."

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From the February 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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