Gulf Coast counties are implementing golf course design standards, ostensibly to maximize environmental protection. Opponents say it's a thinly veiled attempt to prevent growth.
Golf Under Siege
Gulf Coast counties are implementing golf course design standards, ostensibly to maximize environmental protection. Opponents say it's a thinly veiled attempt to prevent growth.
By Kendall Jones
Protect wildlife and its natural habitat. Improve water quality. Encourage bald eagles and bluebirds and opossums to live among us. Produce oxygen, prevent soil erosion, provide urban green space.
The stated purpose of Sarasota County's proposed ordinance mandating certain design and performance standards for new golf courses has appeal.
Until recently, the proposed ordinance received little public attention, sliding by almost without notice. Similar ordinances passed in Lee and Lake counties without challenge, and Collier's is on the way. After all, protecting the environment and making the world a better place are noble goals. Who could complain?
But a growing group of golf course owners, developers and managers are complaining. They say the ordinance is simply unnecessary because new golf courses already are some of the most environmentally friendly projects due to numerous government regulations. Moreover, because today's golfers increasingly seek eco-courses - golf courses teeming with natural habitat and wildlife, jogging trails and bird sanctuaries - golf course developers regularly impose even higher standards on themselves to meet market demand.
Indeed, leading golf industry trade associations have developed best management practices guidelines that recommend standards higher than federal, state and local mandates. The guidelines exist partially to help new golf courses meet growing market demand for an eco-friendly golf experience - after all, few sports enable players to interact with nature more than golf. But they also exist because, after coming under fire in the 1980s with charges of environmental degradation, the American golf industry has made a conscious effort to embrace and improve the land as much as use it.
"We saw the self-imposed higher standards golf courses were using, and we liked them, so we wanted to adopt them," says Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton. "They are higher standards than the state and federal regulations. We can maintain the same level of golf and greatly improve the human environment."
But that begs the question. If current regulations already ensure that new golf courses are environmentally sound, and if the golf course industry already imposes higher standards on itself than those required by law, why does Sarasota County need to enact anything at all?
"It causes it to be a uniform standard, that's all," says Thaxton.
But regional golf course owners, managers and others who are members of the Suncoast Golf Course Association say the ordinance contains a lot more than a uniform standard; it contains barriers to entry, disincentives that prevent further development of suburban golf course communities. They say the ordinance is based on the false premise that golf courses harm the environment and that it improperly delegates county law-making authority to staff and outside parties.
"It's a land grab," says one golf course industry insider who served on the ad hoc committee that drafted the ordinance, but who asked to remain anonymous for fear of backlash from fellow committee members - a fear echoed by almost all ordinance opponents. "It's expensive. It will put an economic strain on already strained golf courses, some of which are in bankruptcy or on the fringe. It's an added cost to golf courses, and to the county, which ultimately means the taxpayers. The ordinance does not ease the process; it makes it more difficult."
Ad hoc committee chair Dorothea Zysko, Sarasota County manager of DSBC Resource Protection, says it was not the committee's job to determine whether the ordinance is necessary.
"Many elements in the ordinance are standards that new golf courses today would apply under the industry guidelines and recommendations," says Zysko, adding the committee was asked to compile those guidelines into a uniform package. "We were to make them consistent. The board of county commissioners will decide if the ordinance is necessary."
Good for the environment
The old accusation that golf courses harm the environment and drive away wildlife is no longer true. With more than a decade of environmental regulations in place, studies consistently show that golf courses actually benefit the environment.
Kraig Marquis is another ad hoc committee member and regional representative of Audubon International, an entity helping golf course owners voluntarily maximize the environmental benefits of their properties. Says Marquis: "It's fair to say that golf courses are already environmentally sound. Golf courses in general are managed very well, and in general, there is not a lot of environmental degradation associated with golf courses. In the past, golf courses have been given an unjustified bad rap. There has been a lot of hype about pesticides, for example. But current regulations and guidelines have golf courses applying pesticide only as needed, in the minimal amount needed, and in a manner appropriate with the environment.
"In fact, golf courses can be a benefit," Marquis adds. "A lot of wildlife come to golf courses after construction. Water quality is often improved."
In the last 15 years, government-sponsored agriculture programs and private entities have conducted dozens of studies in Florida, quantifying the environmental benefits of golf courses. For example, research shows that Bermuda grass, used in more than 93% of turf area on Florida golf courses, filters impurities like fertilizers and pesticides from water better than virtually any other ground cover, including natural vegetation.
On its Web site, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection addresses accusations against golf courses as follows: "In the last several years many golf courses have dramatically reduced their use of pesticides through the use of sophisticated IPM (Integrated Pest Management) programs. Use of fertilizers has also been reduced at most golf courses. Agrichemicals, especially pesticides, are very expensive, and savings in this area directly impact the maintenance budget of the golf course. Many golf courses use no water other than the rain, which collects in the lakes on the course, and others use only reclaimed water from municipal water reuse facilities. The homes surrounding the golf courses may be a greater environmental hazard." Ordinance proponents who claim golf courses harm the environment haven't produced any studies substantiating that position. One source referred the Review to the Internet, which produced only complaints about neglectful golf course development in Asia, where environmental regulations lag far behind American standards. No search turned up studies quantifying ongoing harmful environmental effects of American golf courses under current regulations.
Audubon International factor
Like a few other local governments that have implemented golf course standards, Sarasota County's proposed ordinance adopts the heightened standards of Audubon International's Signature certification program for new golf courses. AI's signature certification program is traditionally a voluntary program for courses choosing to implement extraordinary environmental protection measures, much higher than prevailing government regulations. AI has a separate program, the Cooperation Sanctuary Program, for existing golf courses; the Sarasota ordinance does not affect existing ordinances at this time.
In a nation of 15,000 golf courses, about 250 new courses have obtained AI Signature certification. Of the more than 1,330 golf courses in Florida, there are 15 AI Signature courses. These golf courses may set the standard as the ideal environment-sensitive golf courses - but they are rare.
"We are a voluntary program," says Marquis. "That's where we feel most comfortable. We don't market ourselves to municipalities and local governments. We have gotten a lot of support from groups like the USGA. We did not come to the table asking to be involved; we are asked to get involved because we have a good program to adopt. But we emphasized that other options besides us should be offered."
The proposed Sarasota ordinance, as of the date of publication, states: "Certification Program. New golf courses shall be designed, constructed, certified, and managed in accordance with the Audubon International Signature Program for new golf courses or a similarly recognized golf course environmental certification program. Golf courses no [sic] so certified shall provide adequate documentation that the golf course meets or exceeds equivalent standards of such programs, including compliance monitoring."
Every source interviewed admitted that there simply is no program similar to AI's Signature Program. In a practical sense, then, the ordinance requires new golf courses to undertake the AI Program or produce documentation to show it would meet AI Program standards, even though those standards are not listed specifically in the ordinance.
Commissioner Thaxton is concerned about the specific reference to AI in the ordinance. "I don't see why we can't have the same level of standards as Audubon International, but not require golf courses to go through them and pay them," says Thaxton. "I do not want to create a monopoly or a single source. I don't care about Audubon International. We often require professional review of projects, but we do not name specific companies."
The AI Program is not cheap. There are three levels of Signature certification - bronze, silver and gold. The silver and gold levels have $9,500 registration fees, annual membership fees of $500, plus AI consultant work and site visits that will cost more than $35,000.
The gold level includes twice as many site visits and two to three times as much AI on-site involvement. Even the basic bronze level has a $12,500 registration fee, a $500 annual membership fee and fees to AI for site visits and audits.
Due to the regular compliance monitoring and testing required with the AI program - these are not one-time expenses - golf course owners and managers say the AI certification can cost well over $100,000 per year. With golf courses suffering thinner margins and increased competition, that price tag raises a barrier.
Marquis says the AI program pays for itself in savings to the participating golf course: "We have members who receive a benefit, a payback. Not everything about AI certification is a burden. Many reduce water use and chemical use, realizing savings by reducing those components of golf course management. Our goal is not just to protect the environment, but we also always care about the bottom line. The cost savings can be astronomical."
Ordinance opponents say these are unnecessary expenses. Donald Hemke, partner in the Tampa law firm of Carlton Fields, represents the Suncoast Golf Course Association Inc. On Sept. 9, Hemke sent a letter to Sarasota commissioners claiming the proposed ordinance is illegal.
"Golf courses already spend a lot of money complying with government regulations," Hemke told the Review. "They are already heavily regulated by government entities on everything from pesticides to water usage. This ordinance would create a lot of expensive paperwork and not do a bit to improve the environment. I went to one ad hoc committee meeting, and it was clear that no one has thought about how this would work or what its financial impact would be."
In his letter to county commissioners, Hemke wrote: "It was pointed out that the water tests would be approximately $11,000 per point, which could soon amount to $100,000s per golf course with multiple points with three tests per year. What was more surprising was that no one knew what good the reports would accomplish."
Marquis contends higher standards offer golf courses legal protection. "It helps the golf courses because if they have been through these rigorous mandates, they have protection they may not otherwise have," says Marquis. "If there is contamination downstream, people may be quick to blame the golf course, but they can show that they have been testing and it gives them a built-in protection measure."
Marquis adds that the heightened standards help developers recognize new ways they can be sensitive to the environment that they may not have known before, it protects against possible rogue developers who don't want to follow the industry guidelines and market pressures, it protects citizens suspicious of golf course management and control, and it provides increased credibility to golf courses.
But opponents say all of those purposes overstep the proper bounds of government regulation. They say it's not government's paternalistic role to make sure golf courses have adequately protected themselves from liability claims with superfluous testing and continuous proof of their innocence. They contend that rogue developers would not make it past basic environmental regulations and the zoning process as it now exists. They say the market, the existing regulations and requirements and simple accountability take care of all these problems.
Replies Marquis: "If there is a problem, the implication is not just about the golf course project, it's about protecting neighbors, citizens and the environment. That's why we have regulations."
Vague, subjective standards
The biggest problem Hemke sees with the proposed ordinance is that it unlawfully delegates law-making power to AI, to county staff and to other non-elected entities. By virtually requiring AI certification, AI essentially gets to choose which golf courses get built and which don't. And for developers who don't want to use AI, who want to submit their documentation independently, county staff will decide when the golf course has become adequately compliant.
And it's not a black-and-white measure. Every golf course and property is different, and every set of circumstances will be different. The measure of when a golf course has adequately exceeded the standard practice for attracting wildlife such that it would pass AI muster, for instance, is subjective and ill defined.
"The county is really relying on the staff to make a judgment call to determine if a new project meets environmentally sensitive needs," says Marquis.
Zysko agrees, stating that if a developer chooses not to go through AI, "the staff decides if the project is environmentally sound." Zysko adds, "But a lot of developers are going to get AI certification anyway because it helps salability."
Hemke says this is unlawful. "County staff can execute policy, but it cannot make policy," he says. In his letter to the county commissioners, Hemke writes: "The board of county commissioners may delegate to county staff, but the board must provide specific standards to control county staff determinations. The proposed ordinance is filled with delegations to county staff without any standards whatsoever."
Hemke says that while similar golf courses design standard ordinances have not been challenged in Florida, it is commonplace to challenge local ordinances for improper delegation of authority.
Suncoast Golf Course Association members say the proposed ordinance simply codifies everything new golf courses are already doing - practices that already make golf courses environmentally sound projects. It fills no logical health, safety or welfare void. The ordinance, they say, establishes unnecessary and costly barriers to golf course development, thereby promoting an anti-growth agenda.
"That's so lame," says Thaxton of the anti-growth allegation. "The standards came to us from golf course developers, who say they are not too onerous and are embracing the standards openly. This is not going to stop growth. It's going to promote growth. This will be where people want to live and play. No development is going to go bankrupt because of these regulations. I sincerely believe that. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't back it."
Marquis agrees. "Our stance is that golf courses are excellent land use. They help water quality, provide a recreational benefit, and attract wildlife. Golf courses are not the enemy. We (AI) do not by any means want to prevent golf courses from being permitted. Our program can help them get permitted more quickly."
Audubon International - Don't get confused
There has been significant confusion in the media and among various government entities nationwide about the link between Audubon International, the group implementing golf course certification programs, and the National Audubon Society, the 100-year-old conservation group. There's not one. To clear up the confusion, on July 1, 2002, John Flicker, president and chief executive officer of the National Audubon Society, released this statement:
"Audubon receives many calls and letters from people who have confused Audubon with a different organization calling itself Audubon Internationl. Since its inception in 1991, Audubon International, in collaboration with the United States Golf Association, has been certifying golf course development. For a fee, Audubon International designates golf courses as Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries. Similar certifications are available from Audubon International to developers of cemeteries, municipal parks, campgrounds, resorts, stores, industrial facilities, marinas, residential communities, and preparatory schools.
"Audubon is not associated with Audubon International in any way. Audubon does not certify golf courses, or any other development, as being environmentally sound. Indeed, Audubon more often opposes such development. Audubon also owns and manages many sanctuaries around the country. Audubon sanctuaries are natural places protected from development, not places certified for development.
"We ask your cooperation and care in distinguishing between Audubon and Audubon International, and in clarifying that these various certification programs are not endorsed or supported by Audubon."
Economic characteristics of golf courses in Florida markets and Gulf Coast coverage area counties, 2000.
Region#/courses ($mill)Jobs ($mill) (acres)
Miami- Ft. Lauderdale3631,65028,759$2,99248,450
Fort Myers-Cape Coral-Naples173$73710,144$1,47118,775
SOURCE: "Economic Impacts of the Florida Golf Course Industry," June 2002, by John Haydu and Alan Hodges, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.