San Dieguito Planning Group calls for tree replacement as condition of golf course grading permit

A tree removal during the golf course remodel.
(Laurel Lemarié)

On Feb. 14, San Diego County approved the major grading permit for the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club renovation project. The permit will grant retroactive approval for work already completed and cover work yet to be done on the short game area and driving range.

“The Association has worked closely and collaboratively with the county to satisfy all outstanding issues so that the permit could be granted,” said the Association in a statement. “Golf Club staff and consultants are awaiting bids on the last phase of the project, and, once received, will seek approval for expenditures to move forward.”

The extended public comment period for the grading permit ended on Feb. 10 and at its Feb. 9 meeting, the San Dieguito Planning Group denied the golf club’s grading permit until certain violations were cured.

Once phase three is approved, the advisory group has requested that the county make regular and unannounced inspections to ensure that all regulations are being met and that dust control and best management practices are being utilized. The planning group has also recommended that the golf course restore the 60-80 trees that were removed during construction.

“The rank-and-file Rancho Santa Fe Association member had no idea that the golf course project was being done without permits. It is unfortunate that the proposed work had to be delayed due to grading violations but if the applicant had gone through the proper procedures, we would not be here today,” said Laurel Lemarié, a former Association board director and member of the planning group. “Blatant neglect because of wanting to get the project done as fast as possible caused serious harm to RSFA members.”

Resident Sally Koblinksy, who lives on the seventh hole of the course, said she experienced the tree removals firsthand, pointing out that when the renovation was initially announced only six trees were approved for removal.

“All of these trees were removed without a permit and I think it’s very important the county make restoration of at least 60 of these trees a condition of the permit because without doing so, you are rewarding the contractors for un-permitted grading and penalizing RSF residents for the loss of their trees which will take a generation to grow,” Koblinksy said. “We deserve to have them restored.”

The first phases of the $6.4 million RSF Golf Club renovation were completed last year, including the full turf replacement on the fairways, a new irrigation system and reshaped bunkers. The upgrades to the putting green and driving range areas were a part of the original plans but the work was halted after the county received complaints from the community and it was determined that a major grading permit was required. A stop work order was issued on Aug. 13, 2021.

According to the county, about 12 acres of the 219-acre golf course were graded in violation—the proposed additional grading work makes up about 10 acres. With the grading permit, the county is unable to bifurcate the future work from the violation and must consider the project as a whole.

Golf club project manager David Smith said before construction started, the club had direction from their consultant that they did not need a grading permit—it was a re-grassing and irrigation project and they were not changing the contours of the course.

“We didn’t rebuild the greens, we didn’t create mass grading,” Smith said. “We were 85% of the way through the project, with the soils in a naked state and the need to sod the soils when the county had rise to concern that our project was outside of the bounds… we worked with them to finish to to protect the community from erosion and runoff, it made no sense to stop and not grass the project at that time.”

Since 2021, the golf club has been working closely with the county to address all of the concerns and be in full compliance with any remediation efforts as they aim to secure the grading permit and begin phase three of the course renovation.

During public comment at the planning group’s meeting, Rancho Santa Fe residents spoke up about their disappointment with the process. Resident Rob Whittemore said that it felt a little like the county was “sweeping it under the rug.” As a former Art Jury member, Whittemore said the Association has stressed an intolerance for un-permitted work and a focus on reducing the number of as-builts in the community: “It’s unbelievable hypocrisy what’s happened here and I think there’s a lot of parties that should take responsibility for it.”

Rancho Santa Fe resident Ilia Christy remarked that if the project had been done in a more transparent manner and had been more respectful of neighbors and the community, people wouldn’t be so upset. She said that the rules were not followed and that has created a lot of mistrust.

Mike Aguirre, the former city attorney for the city of San Diego, is now representing former RSF Association Board Vice President Bill Strong, who has filed a lawsuit against the Association over the actions that led to “the Covenant’s largest ever as-built”. During public comment, Aguirre said he believes that the golf course grading without a permit is a law enforcement issue.

“If I was still a city attorney or if I was a district attorney, I would absolutely have opened up criminal prosecution,” Aguirre said. “People are being prosecuted and put in jail for committing crimes a lot less serious than this.”

Strong has contended that important information regarding the golf course project was concealed, which led to a lack of oversight and board governance. At the Association board’s Feb. 2 meeting, he called for the “tainted” manager and board members to resign.

“(The golf club) wants a seal of approval, they want the county to give them the OK, that what they did was alright,” Aguirre said. “It was not right. It was illegal and they’re trying to justify it.”

Lemarié said the planning group was being reasonable by not requesting the county to require full site restoration. In addition to best management practices being followed with future work, the group has also asked for the removal of the contents of all “bury pits” on the course, where old surface material like cement rubble was buried rather than being hauled away. According to Mark Slovick, deputy director for the County of San Diego, the use of bury pits is legal and the soils engineer assured the golf course that it was stable but as part of the conditions of the grading permit, the concrete will be removed and the existing condition will be corrected.

According to Maryam Babaki, Association planning and development director, the Association continues to work on managing the issues and “finding the way forward”. Last month, the board approved hiring former RSF Association Assistant Manager Arnold Keene to provide project management and landscape consulting services to develop a tree replanting plan focused primarily on the trails around the course. The Association hopes to get member feedback on the planting plan this spring for implementation next year.

RSF Golf Club General Manager Todd Huizinga said over the last week there has been a lot of engagement about the trees. In addition to working with the Association, Forest Health and Preservation Committee and Keene, the golf club has also brought in an independent landscape architect to assist in the process of developing a master plan.

“We’re all very proud of our community and we only want to make it better, we feel very good about the process along the way,” Huizinga said. “We believe we’re being as thorough as possible and trying to do the right thing.”


7:57 a.m. Feb. 15, 2023: The grading permit was granted on Feb. 14