‘O’ Zone Depletion
PG Golf Clubhouse petition argues for open space protection.
Thursday, May 20, 2004
A few weeks ago, Pacific Grove resident Lorna Torkos was at Albertson’s off David Avenue, chatting up customers about a new petition to limit the size of a proposed $3.5 million golf clubhouse. Torkos, who has lived across the street from PG’s Municipal Golf Course for 20 years, is part of Residents for a Reasonable Remodel, a group that also put out another petition last year trying to prevent the clubhouse expansion.
While Torkos was talking to an Albertson’s customer, PG Golf Superintendent Michael Leach entered the store to do some shopping. Leach recalls that on spotting Torkos circulating her petition, he said, “Hey, the thing’s going to be built anyway.”
In fact, it looks likely that he’s correct: Bids are going out to contractors, and according to Leach, construction is slated to start around July 1.
The issue continues to consume some residents who feel that the planned clubhouse is way too big, and that the $3.5 million expenditure is a waste of money when the city should be focusing on other, more important issues.
The first petition that the group circulated was not accepted by the city because it lacked a legal disclaimer. It contained almost 1,600 signatures (about 930 are required).
The new petition has changed tactics. The first petition specifically did not allow for any expansion in the size of the existing clubhouse. The new petition—known as the “open space initiative”—allows for a 40 percent expansion.
The new petition mentions the clubhouse in an introductory paragraph, but goes on to decree that building expansion in all areas zoned for open space—“O” zones—must be limited to 40 percent, and that new buildings would be prohibited.
Members of the group hope to get on the November ballot,
although they acknowledge that it may be too late to stop the
Leach says that community members have complained to him about being approached by petitioners at the city’s post office and fed misinformation.
“There is a big concern about the misperception that is basically being told and sold by the petitioners,” he says. “[They say] the golf course is losing money, it’s a drain on the general fund, things that aren’t true.”
A few days after the Albertson’s incident, the petition was submitted to the city to be certified—typically a 30-day process. According to Torkos, 1,250 signatures were gathered.
To say the groups for and against the clubhouse are polarized is putting it mildly.
City officials point out that the funds for the new golf clubhouse are coming out of a special “golf enterprise fund”—which will contain approximately $1.5 million by the end of this fiscal year—and that this money came strictly from golf course revenue.
But Torkos says that there is a danger that the city will default on the bond, in which case golf course fees might have to be raised, and the city’s credit rating could be harmed.
Further, she fears that the company issuing the bond could essentially take over the golf course.
City Manager Ross Hubbard responds that it’s “silly to say this is going to default in the first place.”
“As part of our budget, we’ve put two years of bond payments into a reserve. The very thought that we would default is ludicrous.”
According to clubhouse financier Richard Kiss of brokerage firm Piper Jaffray, the very worst that could happen is that the revenue from the golf course would be diverted to pay off the bonds.
Regardless, local activist Lee Willoughby, who worked closely with Torkos on the petition, says the money should be used to fund the city’s decrepit sewers instead.
“The city is moving forward on a $3.5 million project which most residents don’t use or need, and at the same time raising the sewer surcharge up to 200 percent over time,” she says.
Daniel Davis, a former PG city councilmember and planning commission chair, agrees that PG doesn’t want or need a fancy new clubhouse, and a public vote is appropriate.
“The simple point is if the city is so sure that they are representing the citizens and their position on the clubhouse project,” Davis says, “then why don’t they let the voters affirm that? If they are so convinced, then why are they doing so many things to obstruct people from having a say in this?”
Davis says the golf course revenue could go into a recreation fund, pointing out that at a recent city council meeting, citizens were encouraged to cough up money to fix the city’s rundown tennis courts.
“Why are they asking for handouts,” he says, “and committing the city to a $3 million clubhouse at the same time? That’s a fundamental responsibility of a city to take care of basic infrastructure.”
Davis says that in the past, golf course fees have traditionally gone into the general fund. “I don’t think there’s any barrier, since the council created the directive for a golf enterprise fund, another council could undo it.”
Hubbard says that while golf course revenue was put into the general fund back in the ‘80s, it made it difficult to track every expense and revenue for the golf course.
He also says that the law does not permit the revenue to be used for purposes other than maintenance of the golf course.
“It’s very complicated to grasp,” he says. “But it is required by law that the golf course fees are equal to the cost of the service. Anything in excess of that would be a tax. Cities have done this in the past until they are challenged.”
Mayoral candidate and councilmember Jim Costello argues the same point on ethical grounds.
“A lot of people who signed the last initiative say, ‘Well, I was trying to take that money [to fund] sewer improvements,’” he says. “I tell them, four years ago we raised golf fees with the understanding that the money was going for golf improvements, and wouldn’t it be a little dishonest to take that money?”
Money isn’t the only problem. Critics of the open space initiative also express concern about the repercussions of limiting building in all open space.
“It’s really the law of unintended consequences,” Hubbard says. “You have to look at the big picture and every piece of property zoned ‘O.’ Do you really intend not to build new structures and limit expansion?”
Further, Davis says, there’s been a general confusion between “O” zones and “U” zones, or unclassified zones.
He says that expansion in “U” zones, such as on school property, would not be affected by the petition.
Costello says he is also apprehensive that the open space initiative could prevent needed construction in open space, but that he believes people should have a chance to vote.
“I still have my existing concern that if that many people were concerned we should [let them vote on it],” Costello says. “But my gut feeling is that the majority of people feel like we should go forward with the project.”.