Golf course tree removals raise concern

Residents have shared concerns about the loss of trees during the RSF Golf Club course renovation.
(Karen Billing)

Rancho Santa Fe residents have raised alarm over the felling of trees during the golf course renovation project. Residents claim as many as 27 mature trees have been taken down, more than the six that were approved to be removed in the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club’s master plan.

“Anyone who walks the golf course can see it’s way more than six,” said Jeff Simmons, a Forest Health and Preservation Committee member. “On the front nine on the south side, it was a wonderful canopy to walk under. You walk now, it’s sky. There’s no canopy, not one left… We just need to be a little more careful about this.”

In response, Tom Huesgen, golf club director of agronomy, said that the majority of the removals were trees that were dying or dead, at risk of falling and a danger to both trail users and golfers.

“There is reason for some of the action taking place out there and it’s not just healthy, mature established trees,” Huesgen said.

At the July 2 meeting, the RSF Association board continued a discussion on the trees to its August meeting and placed a moratorium on any further tree removals unless reviewed by Association staff and an independent arborist. A representative from the Forest Health and Preservation Committee will be allowed to participate as an observer.

During public comment, several residents spoke up in defense of the trees.

Chet Koblinsky, who lives near the seventh hole, said that iconic, historic and skyline trees have been removed and he counted nine more that have been tagged for removal. He was concerned that the club is “deviating substantially” from its plan, alleging that the club was removing trees not because of health but to facilitate golf course playability.

“It looks like a clear cut,” Koblinsky said of the view from his home. “For weeks, walkers, runners, riders and even golfers have been complaining about the destruction of healthy trees, the loss of shade and the overall barren appearance of the renovated golf course.”

The board last discussed member concerns about golf course tree removals in November. The some-12 trees removed by the club in 2020 were said to be diseased and structurally deficient and at risk of falling. All of those removals went through the established review process with the RSF Association.

The $5.9 million renovation of the golf course began in April this year and includes the installation of a new irrigation system, new turf on the fairways, reshaped bunkers and new practice range and short game areas.

The golf club master plan called for the removal of six trees and the replanting of 16 trees—the selected replacement trees are cork oak and live oaks that consume much less water and are considered to be much safer trees.

“A lot of the trees (that have been removed) were not identified by the architect because they’re not favorable or unfavorable to playing the game of golf but that doesn’t exclude them from being a hazard, a liability, a risk or fire danger,” Huesgen said.

Huesgen said he understands the sensitivity around tree removals and shared photos of some of the trees that had been taken down. He showed trees that were 50% dead, standing dead or diseased and photos of trunks that revealed that the tree had rotted from the middle. He said the club consulted with an arborist who recommended removal.

Some trees removed did have structural damage due to the construction project, he said, or could not be worked around.

“I love trees…I’m an outdoor person and I’m not here to represent just killing or destroying trees but making a purposeful effort for the project,” Huesgen said.

New RSF Association President Bill Weber said before the board makes any decision they needed to hear all of the facts about why the trees have been removed and what to do moving forward, proposing the delay to next month’s meeting to allow for more detailed presentation from the golf club.

There was much board debate about what to do in the meantime and the composition of the tree review group as the club is due to soon begin work on the back nine.

“People are so upset, my phone, texts and emails are blowing up with complaints and I think we really need to get a handle on it,” Laurel Lemarié said.

Lemarié, as well as new board member Lorraine Kent, encouraged having community member oversight on the tree review team during the moratorium to help allay some of the public’s fears over what has been happening.

Director Dan Comstock and Greg Gruzdowich wanted to ensure that the review process did not impede the construction project’s progress.

Treasurer Rick Sapp said that this is an area when expertise matters over personal opinions. The board eventually supported a committee member having some involvement in any potential tree removal but said the decision-making should lie with the arborist and professional staff.

The golf course renovation is on schedule—the back nine is expected to be closed from July to September and there will be a full course closure for the last three weeks of the project. The targeted completion date is mid-October.