December 29, 2003 - Tree-Huggers & Bone Collectors

By: Jeff Shelley

Besides this motley little web site where you're finding these pearls of wisdom we have another Internet portal called, aka GCN. This online entity tracks golf projects around the U.S. It's derived from a variety of sources, most especially newspaper clippings from every podunk daily, weekly or monthly newspaper published in this great nation of ours. Some of the stuff I've seen written about golf and its role in the greater scheme of things is pretty amazing.

GCN is an offshoot of a printed publication I originated in 1988 called Golf Report Northwest, later expanded to Golf Report West. The Internet is perfect for this mode of data delivery. Instead of being printed and mailed every three months like its progenitors, GCN is updated as the news arrives to give subscribers immediate access to the latest and greatest golf projects. Things seem to be on the right track with GCN as we're continuing to attract subscribers.

Not to pat myself on the back or anything, but I've become a bit of an expert on golf development and construction. I haven't gone to college and taken classes specific to the vagaries of these multibillion-dollar industries. But I have been exposed to thousands of articles and reports on golf projects around the country. I'd have to be an automaton not to have noticed some of the weirder tales from the wacky world of golf development. As noted in the opening paragraph, some of situations at the local level are very queer. Particularly when it comes to the outcries of individuals (or maybe even two or three people) and the broad, convoluted responses from bureaucracy to them.

You name it, I've seen pretty much every kind of roadblock thrown into the path of the budding golf course developer. The long and winding road has been strewn with:

Dinosaur Bones. During site prep for a new course being developed by the city of Golden, Colorado, dinosaur remains were found. In response, the city shut the project down for a couple of months as paleontologists combed the area. Progress was slowed, but officials suddenly had a twist for a once-featureless golf course. In naming the place Fossil Trace Golf Club, the city created a wonderful new facility and, of course, a 4-acre archeological exhibit for the viewing pleasure of golfers.

Bugs. And you thought cockroaches were bad. Butterflies along the West Coast are so powerful they've actually eradicated grand golf resort schemes. Back in the early 1980s the owners of the Holiday Inn chain were forced to get in touch with nature while trying to develop a 280-acre resort near Gearhart, Oregon. The company sought to convert this sleepy burg along the Pacific Ocean into a big-time destination with a 500-room resort hotel and all the trimmings, including a championship 18-hole course. Once the endangered silver-spot butterfly was found on the land, however, those plans went the way of the Edsel - into obsolescence. The butterfly habitat was deemed by the state and environmentalists to be a couple hundred acres in size and, thus, off-limits to development, leaving a scant 30 acres or so for a dozen high-end homes and a nine-hole executive track. Golf projects in California have been similarly bulldozed by those deadly butterflies.

Creepy-Crawlies. Salamanders, snakes, frogs, and all kinds of other slithery creatures have wreaked havoc on golf proposals. Living in magical areas called wetlands (see below), these reptilian rarities are apparently deliberately victimized by hackers and slicers of tiny white spheroids. It seems that for every red-nosed snake, pot-bellied newt, and hog-swallowing toad found squatting in primordial gunk, another golf course bites the dust. Most recently, this happened in Tuxedo, New York, where the vaunted timber rattlesnake put its fangs into a development group that wanted to build 103 luxury homes and an 18-hole course in Sterling Forest State Park.

Old Dead People and Their Belongings. This relates, primarily, to Indian artifacts unearthed while the scrapers are shoving around the first yard-loads of dirt. An interesting situation, considering that Native American groups around the country are gung-ho - and comparatively red tape-free - to build golf courses next to their cash cow casinos. But just have a public agency or a private investor find Indian artifacts - arrowheads, moccasins, human remains, burial markers, human teeth or jawbones - prior or during construction of a golf course, and the local tribes mount up and get on the warpath, citing destruction of heritage. In some states, local tribes determine whether water rights will be granted to golf developers. In Washington, they go a step further, saying whether or not the water proposed for irrigating a new course will find its way to a nearby salmon-bearing stream.

Self-Serving Protectionists. This area may well be my favorite roadblock to a golf development, because it involves people, and people can be damned creative when it comes to being stupid. A favorite recent example happened on Martha's Vineyard, that bastion of old money and privilege on Cape Cod.

Here's that story: Landowner Corey Kupersmith was repeatedly denied a permit by the Martha's Vineyard Commission to build Down Island Golf Club, even though the local folks were generally in favor of his plan. For his new Rees Jones-designed golf course Kupersmith promised to minimize chemical usage, create a nature reserve for half his 270-acre parcel and, best of all, allow local public play on the private track and driving range. But alas, in all its wisdom the 21-member MVC sniffed arrogantly and denied Kupersmith's proposal.

Very peeved (who wouldn't be after spending $20 million in planning, design, legal and consultant fees?), Kupersmith decided to pursue his earlier threat and, using existing zoning and a Massachusetts' law encouraging such projects, develop 240 low-income housing units on his property. The last I heard, many residents of Oak Bluffs and other neighboring towns were ready to join forces with Kupersmith and lynch MVC's board of directors, fearing the low-income housing will lower the value of their property.

The Dreaded Wetlands. I once talked to a guy in my home state of Washington who owned 180 acres and wanted to build a regulation 18-hole course. Sounds simple enough, right? As we talked I gradually sensed he was going to have a coronary if we continued the conversation. The reason? Seems that during King County's two-year-long evaluation of wetlands on his property, over 35 different "specialists" visited and staked his land. With each visit the white OB stakes identifying the setbacks from wetlands were moved farther out, shrinking the usable land for a golf course. Finding a new mud puddle or a depression that would gather water - no matter how temporary - caused a capricious resizing of the setbacks. By the time the county mavens got done with his land and finally granted a conditional use permit for a golf course, all that remained were about 70 acres - enough room for a very long nine-hole track.

Wetlands remain the most common barriers to golf course development. But surprisingly, that roadblock is getting shorter and shorter as governments and environmentalists are learning that the construction of new wetlands are often better and more wildlife-friendly than those forged by nature.

What will they find next? That golf course turf actually purifies groundwater, that golf courses use less chemicals than a couple of hundred million average homeowners, or that the natural space spawned by a golf course actually enhances the habitats of all the critters that live there?