A beloved golf course in the picturesque Gird Valley north of San Diego, California, may soon fall victim to an elaborate federal wetlands mitigation scheme that can simultaneously destroy a community’s recreation area while lining the pockets of well-positioned third parties.
For decades, the Fallbrook Golf Course has been a recreational and ecological jewel that has attracted golfers, joggers, bird watchers, dog walkers, and nature lovers. Located near the Gird Valley Preserve and Live Oak Park, the golf course offers a range of habitat for a wide variety of local and migratory birds as well as other wildlife. The regulation-length, Par-72 golf course is accented by mature trees, including native Live Oaks, Sycamores, and Eucalyptus.
Known as the “Avocado Capital of the World,” Fallbrook, an unincorporated area in northern San Diego County, enjoys a Mediterranean climate, with low humidity and, for most of the year, bright, sunny days. Golfers from colder climates around the world regularly flock to Fallbrook, where they join locals in taking advantage of the many amenities the golf club and its surroundings have to offer.
But all of that may be coming to a swift and bitter end.
The owners of the property are reported to be on the verge of selling the golf course’s back nine to an as yet unidentified buyer, and it is feared that in a second phase, the front nine will also be sold. Either all or half of the golf course will disappear and allowed to become fallow, as the property is converted into a mitigation bank.
Mitigation banks have become a key component of the federal government’s wetlands policy. The complicated scheme, which includes the participation of state and local government agencies, entails the sale of mitigation credits backed by conservation easements placed on the land held by the mitigation bank. The credits are designed to mitigate damage done to wetlands by the buyer. Having pocketed the cash, the mitigation bank – typically a nonprofit organization, for-profit corporation, LLC, or some other entity – is obligated to restore, establish, enhance, or preserve the wetlands in question under a formal agreement with a regulatory agency and permits issued by a regulatory agency, generally the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
Payments can be extremely generous. In the case of the recent expansion of nearby State Route 76, they are estimated to have sold for between $150,000 and $500,000 per acre. With that kind of money at stake, some organizations are eager to get into mitigation banking. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there were 1,300 mitigation-banking sites in the U.S. in 2013, a number that is estimated to have grown by several hundred over the last three years.
The prospect that a buyer will buy all or part of the Fallbrook Golf Course and convert it to a mitigation bank is sending chills down the spines of local residents. One look at what happened to a popular golf course south of Fallbrook tells why. The Sausalito-based Conservation Land Group, in conjunction with Moosa Creek LLC, intended to purchase the San Luis Rey Downs Golf Course in nearby Bonsall but was forced to back off in the wake of a public uproar against converting the property into a mitigation bank.
The Vessels family, which owns the golf course, stepped in and set up its own mitigation bank, hiring Conservation Land Group’s Kevin Knowles to handle the paperwork. In the process, the once-beautiful property has turned into what Fallbrook resident Teresa Platt describes as the “San Luis Rey Downs Weed Patch and Garbage Dump surrounded by thousands of angry and disgusted Bonsall residents.” The terribly degraded property is now a fallow golf course on its way to becoming a mitigation bank.
Aside from the loss of recreational opportunities and jobs resulting from the shutdown of the golf course, Fallbrook residents are deeply concerned about the threat of wildfires. With its semi-arid climate, San Diego County is subject to periodic wildfires. The conversion of a well-maintained golf course into a weedy wilderness area will raise the threat of wildfire to nearby homes. It has always been difficult to secure fire insurance in the area, and conversion of the golf course to a mitigation bank will make it even harder, neighbors fear.
Under local statutes, any land bank will require a County Discretionary Use Permit andSan Diego County will need approval for such a permit from the local Fallbrook Community Planning Group. Additionally, while the FWS and the COE may eventually issue mitigation permits and approve the land mitigation bank under section 404 of the Clean Water Act, they are required by law to coordinate with local citizens via their local governments and planning groups. This gives Fallbrook residents and the Fallbrook Community Planning Group the ultimate veto power over the entire process.
Appalled at the prospect of seeing the beautiful golf course transformed into a fallow, weed-ridden fire trap, local residents are circulating a petition urging the Fallbrook Planning Group to disallow conversion of the Recreation-zoned Fallbrook Golf Club to a mitigation bank (see www.SaveFallbrookGolfCourse.com). The petition also states: “We call on Congressman Duncan Hunter [who represents the area in the U.S. House of Representatives] to modify the Clean Water Act to preclude government agencies from using OUR tax dollars to destroy DEVELOPED recreation land by being sold into Mitigation Banks.”
The curse of “guidance”
The mitigation-bank boondoggle is not anchored in any legislation passed by Congress, including the Clean Water Act, nor is it the result of a rule or regulation developed by a federal agency and subject to public comment. Instead, mitigation banking was unilaterally established by the FWS through a “guidance” issued in 1983. Over the years, mitigation banks expanded to the EPA and the COE, where they took on a life of their own. The administrative regulatory state that allows unelected and unaccountable federal bureaucrats to circumvent Congress and write rules, regulations, and, yes, even the occasional “guidance” is behind the environmental degradation resulting from the destruction of one California golf course and the threatened destruction of another.
If the mitigation banking project goes forward, Fallbrook’s residents will lose their cherished golf course and see the value of their homes suffer accordingly, in exchange for which they get a fire hazard right in the middle of their neighborhood. Meanwhile, other people’s pockets will be lined with income from selling inflated mitigation credits to government agencies. Welcome to what writer Steve Milloy calls “Green Hell.”