When Palo Alto officials first proposed in 2011 a dramatic reconfiguration of the city's golf course in the Baylands, the main goal was to accommodate flood victims, not golfers looking for a richer experience on the links.
The plan was to rebuild levees around the volatile San Francisquito Creek and widen the channel, thereby reducing the flood threat to the vulnerable downstream area that got soaked in the flood of 1998. Accommodating the new levees would have required the city to reconfigure about six holes on the golf course.
Since then, the golf course project has taken on a life of its own, expanding far beyond the needs of the flood-control project. Over the past year, the City Council has enthusiastically expanded the reconstruction of the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course to include all 18 holes as well as a new irrigation system, restroom, golf-cart paths, a "youth golf area," space to accommodate up to five playing fields and a reduction of irrigated turf from 135 to 81 acres.
On Monday, as the ambitious golf course overhaul received its final approval from the City Council, members learned that the very flood-control effort that inspired the golf course project may end up delaying it, with potentially huge ramifications for the bottom line. While officials from the city and the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority (the regional agency spearheading the flood-control project) have maintained that the two projects can be pursued independently of each other, this argument is proving to be a tough sell with one regulatory agency whose approval each project requires.
The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board has been reluctant to issue the creek authority a permit for the flood-control project, claiming that the reconfigured channels could imperil or disturb endangered Baylands species such as the clapper rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse. The creek authority has modified its plans to accommodate some of the water board's concerns, but at the same time, has argued that some of the water board's criticisms fall far outside the scope of the downstream project and should not be applicable.
This debate between the creek authority and the regional water board is now spilling over into the golf course project. In a letter to the city earlier this month, a water-board official voiced concerns about approving the golf course reconfiguration, arguing that doing so would preclude possible design changes for the downstream project.
"This agency has significant concerns with the SFCJPA's current design for the flood control project, and it is possible that the design in the SFCJPA's current application will not be approved by this agency," Dale Bowyer, section leader from the water board's Watershed Division wrote on Jan. 16. "Approving the current design proposal for the Golf Course Project would have the unfortunate effect of foreclosing potential options for improving the SFCJPA's flood control design."
Bower cited the "significant overlap" between the two projects and maintained that applying the the two projects separately "may constitute piecemealing of the two projects' impacts to San Francisquito Creek and adjacent habitat for listed species in the Faber Tract in East Palo Alto," referring to a Baylands site that is home to both the clapper rail and harvest mouse.
City staff, for its part, defended on Monday its determination that the golf project should be reviewed independently from the downstream work. City Manager James Keene said there has been a "difference of opinion" between local officials and the water board about the nexus between the downstream project and golf course renovation. But while these issues are being resolved, he said, the city needs to get all of its other approvals in place so that the golf project can start as soon as possible after the issuance of the water-board's permit.
"We're losing revenues this year just due to the reconfiguration we've already made," Keene said, referring to the city's reconfiguration of several holes to accommodate stockpiling of soil. "I think we need to be as ready as possible for the time when we get the permits to be able to begin the project."
Joe Teresi, senior engineer with the Public Works Department, encouraged the council to approve the Environmental Impact Review for the golf course project, despite the water board's concerns.
"They think there's a chance that the flood-control project may have to be modified to receive its permits and that might cause a domino effect (that will) affect the golf course," Teresi told the council, referring to water-board staff. "That's all theoretical. We feel strongly that the existing boundary between the creek project and the golf course project is the right boundary and that there is no downside to the council taking action on this item this evening."
Len Materman, executive director of the creek authority, made a similar point at the Jan. 21 meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission, which had been reviewing the golf course EIR (it ultimately recommended approval). The creek authority has modified its project to address concerns about the Faber Tract, he said. His agency, like the city, believes that the two projects should be "decoupled" and considered separately.
"We'd like nothing better than for the golf course configuration to be done irrespective of our work," Materman said.
Since the Jan. 16 letter from the water board, officials from the city, creek authority and water board have met to discuss the board's concerns. Rob de Geus, assistant director of the Community Services Department, said the next two-to-three weeks will be particularly important in getting resolution.
While the council unanimously approved the Environmental Impact Report for the reconfiguration of the golf course on Monday, members expressed some concern about the possibility of delay and directed staff to do more number crunching and make sure the city's investment in the course doesn't end up costing the taxpayers millions of dollars down the road.
Under the current plan, the $9.5 million project would be funded primarily by a $3 million contribution from the creek authority and bonds that would be paid out from golf course revenues. Councilman Larry Klein on Monday voiced some concerns about the prospect of revenues dipping because of construction delays and the city's General Fund getting stuck with the bill.
"This is really a risky investment by the city in my view," Klein said. "If projections don't play out, it's the General Fund that will be paying the COPs (certificates of participation)."
Some changes to the course have already been made. Palo Alto has been importing and stockpiling soil on the west side of the golf course to help accommodate the flood-control project, an effort that is expected to bring the city about $1.3 million in revenues. This also created some disruption for local golfers. Rob De Geus, assistant director of the Community Services Department, said the city has been losing about $100,000 in revenues a month. A construction delay of a year could cost about $1 million, he said.
A delay could also have an even greater impact on residents in nearby flood-prone areas. If the creek authority doesn't get its permit soon, it might lose an entire construction season (work in the channel is restricted during the summer because of the presence of steelhead trout).
"There are a lot of life-safety elements to this decision also," Keene said, adding that he hopes this consideration will factor into the water board's determination.
In approving the EIR, the council also endorsed the proposed strategy for mitigating the loss of 588 trees from the Baylands area. To compensate the community for this loss, the city plans to plant 300 native trees on the course and protect 500 oak saplings at the Arastradero Preserve. Another mitigation includes restoration of at least two acres of native habitat at Byxbee Park, near the course.
Even with the regulatory complications, members were unanimous in approving the golf course project, which Pat Burt referred to last year as a "win-win-win-win." Though for the council the four wins -- flood protection, wetlands restoration, space for new playing fields and a better golf course -- remain applicable, members recognized Monday that these benefits come with some risk. They directed staff provide "financial metrics" showing how much revenue would need to be maintained for the golf course to continue to operate. This provision was proposed by Klein, who said it would "place some limitation on how much financial risk the General Fund would take." Councilman Greg Scharff, who seconded Klein's motion, called the reconfiguration an "exciting project."
"I'm glad we're moving forward," Scharff said. "I think it's a win-win situation."