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Rancho Santa Fe residents provide feedback on Golf Club tree management plan

By Karen Billing

A crowd of more than 100 people showed up for an April 3 public meeting on the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club’s controversial tree management plan that calls for the removal of 150 trees (48 trees will be replaced so there will be a net loss of 102 trees).

While some people were troubled by the removal of the trees, some in attendance at the meeting also voiced concerned with the approach the Golf Club took in developing its plan. Those who were critical said the Golf Club did not follow the same master plan approval process it took 10 years ago, and that trees were removed — starting in July last year — without the knowledge of the Rancho Santa Fe Association. There was a perception, expressed by one resident, that it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

“We want to work with the Golf Club to help them achieve the important long-range goals of their master plan,” RSF Association Director Ann Boon said. “We can’t work together if they won’t work with us.”

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Initial feedback from the RSF Association was that the Golf Club needs to do a more thorough, comprehensive and clear management plan, one that includes a full cost-benefit analysis, financing objectives, a phasing plan and review by certified tree and soil professionals.  RSF Association Vice President Anne Feighner also suggested the golf course put the tree plan to a vote of the Golf Club membership before coming back to the Art Jury.

Golf course architect Dave Fleming, who helped develop the tree plan, said they would be willing to revisit some decisions and that there is some flexibility, but he reminded the board that they have used solid principles of forest management in their planning.

“[Some trees] may look healthy but we can’t put our heads in the sand and not take anything out until it’s dead or falling over,” Fleming said. “Some of them are as thin as straws.”

“We’re not a bunch of lumberjacks, we don’t want it to look like St. Andrews with no trees,” said Bill Roberts, head of the RSF Golf Club Green Committee.

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He said he understands that there are a lot of emotions involved, but the club spent more than a year working on the tree plan based on science.

“It’s not a willy-nilly plan,” Roberts said. “Each and every tree has a reason to be removed and also several of them will be replaced. We think we have a good plan…a net loss of 102 of 2,000 trees on the course seems to be a reasonable plan.”

There is some disagreement on the number of trees that had already been removed between July and October of 2012, before it was brought to the attention of the RSF Association.

Boon said that there have been at least 75 trees cut down, documented by invoices. Roberts argued that the club has only removed five unauthorized trees — “We made a mistake” — but he said the rest were all left over from the 2002 master plan and were previously approved to be taken down.

In those cases, better communication from the club was desired by some.

Philippe Charat, who lives near the fifth fairway, said he awoke to hear the buzz of trees being taken down one morning. Three trees in front of his home were gone, trees that protected him from wayward golf balls and gave a “magnificent frame looking out to the golf course.”

He said not only is that view now altered, he is finding wayward balls on their lawn with greater frequency, concerning him about the safety of his five grandchildren.

“Nobody bothered to call or discuss this with me or give me an explanation,” said Charat, who is a member at the Golf Club. “The hubris and the attitude of the Golf Club, as far as I’m concerned, cannot be forgiven.”

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During public input by 15 speakers, some in attendance characterized the management plan as a “massive removal,” “overly aggressive” and a “disaster,” but Fleming said that is not the truth.

“I’m taken aback by anyone who feels that we’re trying to butcher trees,” Fleming said.

Fleming said the management plan takes aim specifically to counteract conditions of invasive insects such as lerp psyllids, tortoise beetles, glassy- winged sharpshooters and citrus psyllids. They are also looking at groups of eucalyptus, California pepper trees and blackwood acacias out on the course that are dying and in decline.

With the new plan, they have focused on trees with a natural resistance to those invasive insects, as well as species that give the course more diversity while being compatible with the Rancho Santa Fe landscape theme, Fleming said. New trees in the plan include cork oaks, holly oaks, sycamores and species of eucalyptus that are less-susceptible to disease, such as lemon-scented eucalyptus.

“We’re trying to get a biodiversity of plant material so if one insect or one disease comes in it doesn’t take out the whole forest,” Fleming said.

Another factor driving the tree management plan is winter playing conditions on the course.

During the winter months, the course undergoes what Fleming calls the “ice cube effect.” When the sun angles are low, the clay soil fills with water and those 28-degree nights can freeze the soil. With the trees blocking the sunlight, it creates a cube of ice and basically turns the course to mud.

That results in “municipal-like” turf conditions at a course that is world class and one of the best in California, Fleming said.

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An alternative solution to tree removal could be a process known as “sand capping” in which a layer of sand mix would be added to the fairways, restoring the natural contours, improving the draining and replacing the turf.

Unfortunately, sand capping is very expensive and time consuming, Roberts said. It could cost up to $250,0000 and the fairways would have to be shut down for 60 to 90 days.

Boon pointed out that it has been reported that several strategies have been undertaken to deal with difficult soil, such as the development of wells and a reverse osmosis system, removing non-native plants and renovating tee areas. She said it’s the Golf Club’s “belief” that tree removal will improve course conditions but not a certainty.

“Is the Golf Club willing to sacrifice all these trees in the interest of saving money and in the hope and ‘belief’ that it will improve the drainage and playing conditions in the winter?” Boon asked. “Should good custodians select the cheapest plan, the most expedient plan or do they develop the best plan for the long-term health, beauty and playability of the course?”

The RSF Association’s Committee on Natural Environment (CONE) and the Trails Committee have both toured the course and reviewed the management plan and would like to see more revisions done.

Bill Beckman, chair of CONE, said input from certified arborists and soil scientists should be included before the final plan and said the committee had concerns that there was not a detailed phasing plan for proposed removals.

“All of the trees being suddenly removed would have a dramatic impact on the perspective of the course,” Beckman said. “Our trees are one of the most spectacular and beautiful parts of the community and the golf course trees are the most visible in all of the Covenant.”

Jerry Yahr, chair of the Trails Committee, said that they strongly support a cooperative effort between the Association and the Golf Club to develop a master plan that will work for everyone.

Yahr said of the 65 percent of trees planned for removal that would impact the trail system, the committee didn’t have a problem with only 15 percent of them. The rest, he said, are considered valuable for providing a nice buffer between the trail and the golf course, and providing shade on the trails that heat up in warmer months and those that create those “nice skyline views” that would be lost.

Yahr said the Trails Committee does feel the landscape needs to be upgraded and  wondered if the Association could use Covenant Enhancement Fund monies to create a trail system landscape in keeping with the plans and goals of the Golf Club.

Of the 15 speakers during public comment, 11 were  in opposition to the management plan. They lamented the loss of specimen and signature trees and voiced disappointment in the Golf Club’s tactics.

“In my opinion the ambiance and beauty of our great old golf course will be significantly impacted and it will take many, many years to replace those trees,” said Tim Sullivan, a Golf Club member since 1996.  “There has to be a better alternative, a less severe alternative.”

Others spoke in favor of the plan, arguing that the health and well-being of the course is integral to the health and well-being of the community.

George Scott, a Golf Club member since 1985, said that the plan really only removes about one tree per acre, leaving 18 trees per acre.

“It’s not being done with malice or to make the property look worse, it’s to make the property look better,” Scott said.

Scott pointed out that when the Association took out trees in the village a few years back, he trusted that they were making the right decision as stewards of the property. He asked that the membership do the same and trust that the Golf Club is making the best decisions for the long-term benefit of the club.

As the April 3 meeting was an informational public meeting and the first time the RSF Association board and the Art Jury heard a formal presentation of the plan, no action was taken. RSF Association Manager Pete Smith said the Golf Club will now take the member input it received and make any revisions it deems necessary to the plan. A formal submission of the plan will then be made to the Art Jury. The RSF Association board will eventually have final authority on whether the plan is approved.


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