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A Santee company has been trying since 2008 to buy a chunk of land along the north bank of the San Diego River. The property is situated on a little finger of eastern San Diego that pokes into Santee. The 65.4-acre parcel is part of the Carlton Oaks Golf Course. Half of the course’s fairways lie in Santee and half in San Diego. TY Investment, Inc., bought the golf course in 2007 and has been leasing the property from San Diego’s Public Utilities Department for $250,000 per year. The company said that buying the property would make it easier in the long run to finance needed improvements at the clubhouse and other golf course facilities. But the City was refusing to sell. Until last April, that is.

Mike Nelson is the executive officer of the San Diego River Conservancy, a California state agency created by the legislature to protect the river. On May 6, Nelson told a meeting of his governing board that the City had just notified him of an offer it made to TY Investment. The City would sell the parcel at Carlton Oaks for $3 million. That was the first time Nelson had even heard of negotiations between the parties. The silence could not last longer, however, for state law gives the conservancy a first right of refusal over the property. In order to exercise the right, the conservancy would have to buy the property.

What to do? During its next bimonthy meeting on July 8, the conservancy’s board listened to arguments over which is better, a “private option” or a “public option.” The private option would allow TY Investment to buy the land, while promising to keep it in use for golf or similar recreation only. TY Investment would also grant the conservancy an easement for a public river trail and rights to protect the land’s environment. In choosing the public option, the conservancy would buy the land in order to guarantee its protection. The conservancy could then rent the parcel to the golf course, as the City has been doing all along.

To complicate matters, the City’s Real Estate Assets Department began giving the conservancy short deadlines to make its decision. The conservancy complained that the issue was much too complex and was able to get the first two deadlines postponed. It also scheduled a special meeting in its off-month of August. The last meeting it held was on September 2, with a final deadline of September 10. If the deadline had not been met or postponed, the conservancy would have lost its first right of refusal.

Minutes of the September meeting were not yet available, so I emailed Mike Nelson to learn what the decision was. He wrote back, indicating that the conservancy “chose not to intervene in the proposed sale of the property and to accept a donation of a Conservation and Trail Easement Deed, as well as a Right of First Refusal Agreement, from TY Investment, once the sale is completed.” So if TY Investment ever decides to sell, the conservancy will again be in a position to control the property’s future. But first, the current sale must be approved by the San Diego City Council, which as of this writing has yet to schedule deliberations.

The outward simplicity of the decision belies how intense debate became. TY Investment sent to the three summer conservancy meetings its attorney Felix Tinkov and Scott Alevy, a former Chula Vista city councilman who advertises himself on the Web as “the consummate public relations professional.” According to minutes of the July 8 meeting, Alevy argued that “what was really at issue” was the golf course’s survival. In this economy, he argued, “if favorable funding to do improvements necessary to remain competitive was not available, the golf course will not remain open and more than 100 people could lose their jobs.” Alevy asked, “Do you want to establish a beachhead here on the backs of the citizens who might lose their jobs and thousands of people who use the place for recreational relief? Is [the public option] the best use of some precious state funds?” And he pointed out that “golf courses are excellent stewards of the environment and that you could not find a more benign land use next to a river than a golf course.”

Tinkov followed by noting that if the conservancy purchased the 65.4-acre parcel, there would be no access to it. It is surrounded by golf course property and by another City parcel, 36 acres in size, that lies immediately adjacent to the river. The conservancy, said Tinkov, “would never have physical access except through TY Investment property, short of building a bridge.” Originally, he said, TY Investment wanted to buy both parcels from the City and donate the smaller one to the conservancy. Because it is riparian land, “to be honest, it is more of a hassle and a liability for us to maintain and we were aware that the conservancy has an interest in running a trail through it.”

These comments appeared to anger Michael Beck of the Endangered Habitats League. According to the meeting minutes, Beck said that “this property represents an opportunity to let the river breathe a little, to move a little.” The prospective buyers’ point of view, he said, is that “the riparian area along the river is a hassle, a liability, it is a problem.…”

Robin Rierdan, a resident of Santee, encouraged the conservancy to exercise the public option. In enhancing the river environment, “we are going to be confronted with problems like this at every turn,” she said. “Lakeside’s River Park Conservancy purchased 100 acres that was zoned for heavy industry. We removed 40 acres out of the tax base, but the park today has become a tremendous amenity to the community, a real legacy.”

But Santee’s city manager Keith Till worried about the possible loss of the golf course, which has a Santee business address. “Santee would like to see this course operating,” said Till. “It is a real asset to the community.”

On a Sunday, I went out to see what all the fuss is about. There were few golfers playing the course, but the club’s facilities, including a lodge for players wanting to stay overnight, look to be in fine condition. What glimpses I could get of the river, without trespassing to cross the fairways, revealed a narrow passage of water whose banks are infested with the invasive Arundo donax, a species of giant cane. The conservancy has already received over $900,000 in state and local funds for a habitat restoration project adjacent to the golf course on the east.

This section of water has been crucial in the plans of the San Diego River Park Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to give the river its own voice.” Those are the words of Rob Hutsel, the foundation’s executive director. During an interview at Hutsel’s office on Pacific Highway slightly north of the river, he elaborates. The foundation establishes green belts and trail systems all along the 52-mile-long river, from its headwaters near Santa Ysabel to its entrance into the sea at Ocean Beach’s Dog Beach.

Carlton Oaks Golf Course lies between Santee’s Mast Park on the east and Mission Trails Regional Park to the west. The San Diego River Park Foundation wants to build a trail system that connects the two parks. Where exactly to place the trail on or along the golf course still awaits decision. Hutsel believes that his organization, the golf course, the San Diego River Conservancy, and the cities of Santee and San Diego should all participate in deciding the best route. Some participants in the discussion so far have assumed the trail will run on top of a berm along the river that reduces its overflows. But that’s squarely in the riparian environment and would affect its ecology. “The trail needs to be placed a ways away from the river so that doesn’t happen,” Hutsel tells me. “But how would that affect the golf course? Would it need to be redesigned? Would fences need to be built to protect trail users from being hit with golf balls? And who would pay for these things? All these are questions that still need to be decided.”

Hutsel seems to wish San Diego’s Real Estate Assets Department had not moved so quickly to sell the crucial parcel of land to the golf course owners. He believes the City should now take another six months to get the trail planning right ahead of finalizing the sale. “The City of San Diego has a unique responsibility to the river. The U.S. Supreme Court gave them its water rights [in 1930]. Since they were given the water rights, we believe they need to be stewards of the river and its environment.

“There’s no other place except next to the Carlton Oaks Golf Course to have the river park trail connection we need. And once you sell that City property to a private owner, there’ll be no more public leverage over the trails. Sure, the golf course operator says, ‘Hey, we’ll work with you on trails,’ but we don’t know where the trail needs to be, so until that’s decided, this sort of loose language that says we’ll work with you isn’t satisfactory.”

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