Plan to replace golf course trees moves ahead

Parks and Recreation Commission approves mitigation strategies for renovation of Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course

With more than 600 trees about to get the axe at the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course, city officials are looking at nearby marshlands, distant foothills and the golf course itself for possible locations to regain lost canopy.

The city's Parks and Recreation Commission approved on Tuesday night a plan that would mitigate the loss of trees at the Baylands golf course by undertaking a range of planting projects, including one nowhere near the impacted site. The "hybrid" approach includes planting about 300 smaller trees at the golf course, which is about to undergo a complete redesign. In addition, the city's mitigation strategy includes the restoration of at least 2 acres of native Baylands habitat near the golf course site and protection of up to 500 seedlings at the Pearson-Arastradero Preserve.

The strategy, which combines new trees at the site, new trees outside the site and new plant species in the marshes, was put together over months of negotiations between staff, nature-loving stakeholders and a three-commissioner subcommittee. In the end, the parties reached a consensus on the the multi-pronged approach but had differing opinions on how to fund the maintenance of the new trees. City Arborist Walter Passmore and staff from the Community Services Department favored using the revenues from the new and improved golf course to pay for maintenance. Commissioners advocated finding a revenue stream that is not tied to the golf course's performance.

"We're trying the best we can to tie a secure funding source to maintenance so that we can have the best possible chance of success," Passmore said in explaining staff's proposed funding strategy.

Ultimately, the commission voted 6-1, with Pat Markevitch dissenting, to adopt the commission subcommittee's approach. Markevitch voted against the proposal because of her uncertainty over funding sources.

In approving a "hybrid" approach mitigating the loss of 538 trees at the golf course and another 81 trees at a nearby site that the city is considering for a possible Athletic Center, commissioners agreed to give the community's values over pure mathematics. It makes no sense, the commission reasoned, to simply replace the number of felled trees at the course with the same number of new trees, particularly given the city's mission to emphasize the golf course's Baylands theme during the redesign. The 300 trees that would be planted at the golf course would be significantly smaller than the ones chopped down.

In pursuing the other components of the mitigation, the city emphasizes the projects' "qualitative attributes," namely their ability to enhance the recreation experience and support the native habitat that was heavily impacted by the golf course's construction half a century ago.

Commissioner Deirdre Crommie, a member of the three-member subcommittee, spoke highly of the mitigation proposal and supported a strategy that does not require a new tree to be planted for each tree lost. Rather, they agreed that the city should plant as many smaller trees as the golf course's new design can comfortably accommodate and then look elsewhere for further mitigations. The idea was to make these improvements as close to the golf course as possible, Crommie said.

"We came up with a hybrid model where we'd bring in as many trees as we can on site," Crommie said. "When we reach that capacity, we'd move into a different type of habitat."

She noted that the approach would help to restore the Baylands and "produce a more native Baylands habitat."

But both she and commission Vice Chair Ed Lauing argued that the success of the this mitigation strategy should not depend on the success of the golf course. Staff estimates that it would cost about $200,000 to implement the mitigation strategy and another $20,000 in annual maintenance fees. Lauing suggested that the city should designate a specific budget item for the maintenance and said the commission would be willing to help the council come up with a revenue source.

"We're saying it can't depend of the golf course performing," Lauing said of the mitigation strategy. "Because if the golf course doesn't perform, we can't let the trees die."

Ultimately, it will be up to the City Council to decide which funding plan to pursue. Staff plans to present both alternatives to the council for possible approval on Feb. 3.


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Posted by Tom
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 22, 2014 at 10:23 am

Those who work at Stanford are very familiar with seeing mature trees, even some very large ones, that have been almost literally picked up and moved to other locations on campus. I'm sure this is more expensive than chopping down one and planting a relatively tiny new one, but it seems much more in keeping with the idea of developing Palo Alto's canopy. Has this been considered?

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Posted by Midtowner
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 22, 2014 at 10:43 am

I still don't understand why the 538 golf course trees and the 81 trees at the neighboring site must be chopped down. I haven't read anything about their condition--are they diseased? are they hazardous?--other than that they are mature. Mature trees sequester more carbon than young ones, research has recently shown. Palo Alto shouldn't be in the business of chopping down mature trees. Remember what happened at California Avenue?

Please let these trees stand. It would be a source of city pride and more consistent with Palo Alto's core values of conservation and environmentalism to develop a design that works around the existing trees, assuming they're healthy. Why do we have those wire fences around trees with the Arborist's warning not to touch them whenever residential work is being done? It's outdated thinking to chop down nearly 600 mature trees simply for aesthetic reasons. I agree with Tom that mature trees should be picked up and moved if necessary.

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Posted by WhySmallerTrees
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 22, 2014 at 11:05 am

to Midtowner - information about the trees scheduled for removal, how many are damaged/dying, how many wrong for the location, etc. was published when the plan originally surfaced. You should be able to find it.

I am curious as to why the point is made that "The 300 trees that would be planted at the golf course would be significantly smaller than the ones chopped down." What is the rationale for their being "significantly smaller"? Is it habitat, species appropriateness, cost, maintenance, ...?

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Posted by jerry99
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 22, 2014 at 1:48 pm

Do not chop down and destroy mature trees to improve a golf course. Are you people crazy???

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Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 22, 2014 at 1:57 pm

I served 9 years of the Parks and Recreation Commission, ending in 2012. Here are some thoughts I have about this golf course tree matter.

First, the Commissioners are not firebrands. They have various points of view, do not always agree, and do attempt to achieve consensus. Their purview can bring out all sorts of different interest groups with disparate opinions, and in my experience, the input is taken seriously when it is serious input.

A significant part of the Weekly’s reporting was mention of a task force of Commissioners and various stakeholders. While that type of task force is not perfect, you do have “everyone in the room.” I view it as a best practice for local Palo Alto government. I do not think the public understands or appreciates the time and effort required outside of public meetings for task forces to develop their recommendations that must then be reviewed and approved at the Commission and Council level.

Such a task force was in place for dealing with the tree issue at the reconstructed golf course.

Public input on what to do with the golf course occurred over several years. Many open meetings took place to get input and feedback from the public, for those who chose to participate.

The architect chosen to develop the initial design is from a blue ribbon golf course design firm, and had several alternatives for the Commission and City Council to choose from. The design chosen is very exciting, and while I am not a golfer, I can see how the new course will be a much more attractive place to play than is its predecessor.

The new design calls for removing trees, many diseased or inappropriate for salty marshland, and some that do not fit in the new golf course configuration. The latter trees are the ones that call for mitigation. Replacement trees will be compatible with the environment in which they are planted, and will grow and thrive as the years go on. Loss of canopy for a period of time? Yes. Better canopy in future years? Also a yes, particularly since there will be trees planted in other parts of Palo Alto as part of this project.

This golf course re-design is driven by a multi-county, multi-city effort to make major changes around San Francisquito Creek. After the El Nino floods of 1998, it was decided that entire creek, from the bay to the hills, including the golf course, Pope Chaucer bridge, and other bridges upstream, needed improvement. We are now, at long last, seeing some action.

I have long been an advocate of getting more recreational space for youth and adults In Palo Alto. “Soccer moms” were an indirect influence on carving out some golf course space for more recreation facilities, but they mostly don’t spend time on these questions. They just want a place for their kids to play and to be able to spend time with fellow parents and kids in a positive environment.

We do not have enough space for families to achieve that objective. The new space at the Baylands can add to that capacity. That will help reduce out of town trips by car for games, offer evening activity as a result of lighting, and potentially offer a gym for all those volleyball and basketball players that have limited playing space in Palo Alto right now.
There is the space, but not the funds, to develop this new recreational facility. I will comment at another time about that funding matter.

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Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 22, 2014 at 2:53 pm

"City Arborist Walter Passmore and staff from the Community Services Department favored using the revenues from the new and improved golf course to pay for maintenance. Commissioners advocated finding a revenue stream that is not tied to the golf course's performance."

I suggest we fund the City Council from the greens fees of the new "WOW" golf course. The Commissioners know there is not going to be a "revenue stream" from the new golf course, at least not in a positive direction if you count loan payments. This whole thing is taking on the flavor of the Mitchell Park "Library" debacle. Remember, it is supposed to take 1.5 years and $7.5M to finish this project. Already we have multi $100K "tree costs" which I bet are not in the original estimate. Hey are they going to use "native" no water grass on the 3 new soccer fields? Just remember when this whole thing is over we could have had the flood control for zero dollars. Those three soccer fields are going to cost multiple millions each paid for by the golfers (if they come of course).

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Posted by Mr Florida
a resident of another community
on Jan 23, 2014 at 8:18 am

There are good posts here, especially the ones that ask questions! The plans show that many of the trees (nearly all of them) to be removed are eucalyptus variety with most suffering due to the high water table of the bay. The roots simply do not allow the tree to flourish. You can see this firsthand when you drive down Embarcadero - just look at the pathetic trees near the road in front of the golf course. I do know that most of the very large eucalyptus that are in healthy condition are staying. The design works around them, which golfers and those attending the dozens of meetings have all embraced. Nearly all of the stone pine remain, too. Why? because they do well in the bad soils and high water table.

There is an in-depth tree survey that shows how many are dead and dying across the golf course. The new trees to be planted at the golf course are suitable Bayland varieties - not the eucalyptus and others that cannot get good root depth. The new trees include coffeeberry, myrtle and wild lilac. There are also some live oaks on the higher (better soil) areas.

There was a post about the revenue stream for the golf course after it is re-done. Besides saving water and now being a more suitable (less turf with more naturalized areas) golf course for the Baylands area, the "new" course is expected to eventually produce a stronger revenue for the city. I do not know how you can get it, but there is a big report done by an independent analyst that looked at the golf operation and outlined various strategies for getting it back to better finances. I recall that it pointed out that the golf course once provided a lot of revenue to the city - which allowed the city to use some of those funds for other park improvements. Seems like a win-win if we can get to that again!

It always amazes me when the idea of making the course better gets mixed up with a "save the trees at all cost" mentality. Did you know that the golf course site was once the estuary of the San Francisquito Creek!! There were few trees if any. Why? Because trees do not grown in a flood-creek estuary folks. That is why we call this piece of Palo Alto the "Baylands."

The estuary area was completely plowed up and the creek re routed. That almost 100 years ago. The site was farmed and used for who knows what agriculture purposes. You can see some neat old maps and aerials on the SFCJPA website. Fortunately in the 1950s the city reclaimed the area for open space - a PUBLIC golf course. Unfortunately, it was planted with trees that do well in Los Angeles, but not at the edge of the Bay in Palo Alto! Also, it was planted with wall-to-wall grass that needed water. Lots of water! Move ahead 60 years or so and now we have a chance to reduce the grass, use less water (and more treated wastewater), make the course better, plant appropriate tree varieties AND turn it into a WOW golf experience. I am glad to see positive change. The golf course needs to be wide open space with natural areas and appropriate tree varieties. It needs to rely on less water and less maintenance.

Unlike some of the projects mentioned above, this one appears to have been well thought out by the city. But, you have to take the time to figure that out. It takes reading and looking at the work that has been done. My guess is that a majority of the negative comments are coming from drive-bys who have done neither.

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Posted by Good call
a resident of another community
on Jan 28, 2014 at 2:16 pm

Great response Mr. Florida. Thank you!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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