Are Golf & Farming No Longer Compatible?

By: Jeff Shelley

Several states are weighing their options on whether to allow new golf projects to be developed on land set aside for agriculture. Mainly an issue in the West, where there are still vast tracts of uninhabited yet fertile land, the transition from farming operations to golf courses has become an increasingly contentious issue in recent years.

It hasn't always been that way. During the game's early days and even through much of the 20th century these two uses of relatively large parcels of real estate went hand-in-glove. Such symbiosis goes back to 1888 and the first course built in the U.S. St. Andrew's Golf Club in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., was founded by the so-called "Apple Tree Gang" since it was built within an apple orchard on the old Weston Estate.

Over on the other side of the continent, in the early 1890s a transplanted Scotsman, Alexander Baillie, tried to bring golf clubs into the U.S. from Vancouver, B.C., to supply new players at the nascent Tacoma Country & Golf Club. The equipment was imported to the Pacific Coast by Balfour, Guthrie & Company, Baillee's employer in Scotland.

Baillee was in the process of taking them across the U.S.-Canadian border when the customs agent asked what the items would be used for. Since the agent had never heard of golf, Baillie described the sport and how the implements were to be used. The agent replied, "Well, I'll enter them as garden tools. You'll probably dig up the ground anyway."

Other such farm-golf examples are seen throughout North America (before the advent of mechanized equipment, old courses were "mowed" by grazing sheep). Over the decades how many farmers have grown weary from the long days and gradually poorer growing crops, deciding to till over their acreage, smooth out the ground, pop in nine or 18 flags, and open a golf course? How many American golf courses are named Green Acres?

Invariably, once such a golf course opens for play, the old barn becomes a place to store maintenance equipment and the farmhouse is turned into a clubhouse.

I've played golf courses running through former fruit orchards, between hazelnut (filbert) trees and vineyards, and across wheat fields and cattle ranches. A course in Yakima (which bills itself as "The Fruit Bowl of the Nation") in central Washington is called Apple Tree. Its trademark is the par-3 17th, which features a water-ringed green shaped like an apple. It has a white-sand bunker at the putting surface's back-left corner shaped like a leaf.

In the early 1990s that 6,800-yard course was built atop a 100-year-old apple orchard whose soil became so arsenized from constant chemical sprays that it was sterile and could no longer grow fruit. It's now a place that boasts one of the Pacific Northwest's iconic golf images.

With its miles upon miles of prairies and grass-stabilized dunes, Nebraska's Sand Hills have developed into the place to build beautiful, and high-end, golf links. Still the rangeland for longhorn steer - at last count, housing upwards of over 500,000 head - these windswept stretches in the remote north-central part of the Cornhusker State are ideal for sublime golf.

Farm proprietors - small, family-run operations anyway - are independent, self-supporting people. After being nurtured through the generations, their farmland is usually owned outright by the current occupants. But with the advent of a few mega-agricorporations and the prices of crops being squeezed by the ebbs and flows of market demands, competition from foreign nations, fickle weather and myriad other factors, smaller farmers are starting to look elsewhere for how to best use their properties in these tough economic times.

Even though the game is currently stagnant, golf remains an option. Besides requiring ample acreage, much of the infrastructure - water, road access, electrical power, etc. - needed for golf is already in place for a farming operation to turn into a going-golfing concern.

Aye, but there's the rub. Should it be up to the farmer - and individual landowner - to decide what he can do with his property, or should that determination be made by county, state or federal government?

Along with several other places around the U.S., this situation is being played out in California's Calaveras County. Besides being known as the setting for Mark Twain's book, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," this area in the north-central part of the Golden State is also recognized for its production of fine wine grapes, olive oil, livestock and other commercial crops.

South of the small town of Wallace, a couple, Mike and Michelle Nemee, have been trying since the early 2000s to open a golf course they built on their Trinitas Olive Oil operation. Now, after years of continuous legal appeals, lawsuits and financial hardship, the Nemees may be nearing some sort of resolution for their proposed 280-acre development.

Local leaders will consider a zoning amendment later this year that, if approved, could have wide implications for not only the Nemees but for other rural parts of Calaveras County.

After, once again, denying a request in May 2009 by the Nemees to change the property's zoning from agriculture to recreation, thus allowing them to open the course, the county board five months later reluctantly said it would consider amending the existing code to allow golf on land zoned A1, or general agriculture. A related zoning is AP, for agricultural preserve.

If officials change the definitions of these two designations, there could be a keener interest in transforming the county's agricultural lands into golf. Calaveras has about 110,000 acres zoned A1, and another 130,000 acres or so zoned AP. The AP land, which could potentially also host future golf courses, is used for property that is under contract to receive a Williamson Act tax break.

Once property owners allow those contracts to expire, the land reverts to A1 zoning. Combined, A1 and AP make up more than 240,000 acres or 378 square miles, more than 36 percent of Calaveras County.

Throughout their lengthy ordeal, the Nemees have categorized their project as part of a move toward an "agritourism" operation. In addition to the golf course, which is currently going unused, they'd like to build a lodge with overnight accommodations and a resort centered on their olive oil facility.

As expected, the latest round of discussions has opponents, including other ranchers, some environmentalists and even a few county supervisors who are skeptical that golf is a good fit for the county's ranchlands.

"I just have a hard time thinking that golf should be considered compatible with agriculture. I think they are very different," Supervisor Tom Tryon, also is a cattle rancher, told (Stockton) Record reporter Dana M. Nichols (see:

Also concerned about the precedent the rezoning will set is John Buckly, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center. "It will encourage others to violate county policies and then get those policies changed after the fact to legalize their violations as well. It could affect a huge amount of acreage in the county for other kinds of currently unpermitted uses.

"If the county doesn't stick with the clear legal decisions that it has made so far, there are many legal reasons why our center and others will certainly need to look at the possibility of legal action," Buckley added ominously.

As with any golf course, the developer needs to get permission from the local oversight agency to open it to the public. The proposal now being drafted by the county stipulates that owners of A1 lands who want to build golf courses must apply for a conditional use permit.

So even if the zoning amendment is approved and the Nemees apply for a conditional use permit, there's no guarantee they will receive the latter component. Another obstacle is that Calaveras County's zoning code bars retroactive legalization of any land use that was illegal at "the time of its discovery."

If the amendment is approved and the couple is given a conditional use permit to open the course, it's likely various environmental groups will file lawsuits to stop what they see as an attack on the county's agricultural lands.

The lesson here is that a farmer with a money-losing operation and property with decreasing value can no longer choose to build a golf course on his real estate without having to wade through piles of bureaucratic red tape and endure considerable angst.