Battle over city-owned golf courses taking shape

Poll anyone outside the city about what comes to mind when they hear “Palm Springs,” and you’re likely to get one of three responses: Sunshine, swimming pools, or golf.

That’s why the latest cause being rallied around here may prove difficult for many to comprehend: Will golf become endangered in a city promoted as one of the nation’s golf meccas?

That issue is the motivation behind the formation of a new group in the city, Save PS Golf, formed earlier this month to spread word about their efforts to prevent the sale of city-owned Tahquitz Creek Golf Resort. The group’s movement is gaining steam on Facebook and through a petition. Posts and comments from group members, many of them owners of residences around the courses, are sounding the rally cry as members share information and frustration. The tone is similar to that found on the pages of groups formed to address other environmental and social issues.

“This would be the biggest homeless camp in the world,” wrote one group member, predicting the future of the property if golf were abandoned. Added another: “Their ‘fear tactic’ is to tell you that the alternative is some kind of dense housing. That of course is total BS!”

The “their” in this case are environmental groups hoping to repurpose both the city-owned Tahquitz Creek courses and a pair of dead or neglected private courses nearby — Bel Aire Greens and Mesquite Country Club —  into the Mesquite Desert Preserve. As envisioned, the preserve is described as “a beautiful natural desert setting with walking paths, educational plaques, community gardens and more.”

Creating the preserve is the idea of Oswit Land Trust (OLT), an activist group headed by Jane Garrison. Her organization is most well known for rallying to save Oswit Canyon in South Palm Springs, purchasing 114 acres with $7.5 million in donations, sparing it from a housing development. OLT is currently in negotiations to purchase the two private courses, and hopes the city will agree to sell the Tahquitz Creek courses as well.

“It’s interesting: We originally thought (that the property acquisitions) would be Bel Aire Greens first, Mesquite second and the Tahquitz courses third,” Garrison told the Coachella Valley Independent last year. “But now it’s reversed. Currently, we’re doing an appraisal on the city golf courses, which should be done in the next month or so. Then we’ll know what the fair market value is.

“Hopefully, the city will let us go forward to acquire them, and we can do a desert restoration and have that land be open to the public — and not just golfers.”

Many of those golfers take offense to the notion that enjoying their favorite pastime is somehow an affront to the public. While they welcome turning the private courses into a preserve, they point out that Tahquitz Creek is not in disrepair, and is often booked solid during winter months as locals pack the courses and visitors flock to the desert to escape the chill back home. The sport is now enjoying a resurgence, they said, thanks in part to the need for outdoor recreational opportunities brought on during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Losing this treasure will change Palm Springs identity forever,” organizers wrote on the Save PS Golf website. “A major draw for our tourism community would be lost. The economic impact on a multitude of businesses will be extremely significant. There will be loss of jobs.

“This would also displace thousands of local golfers, many of whom moved here for golf and may leave without it. The only public course in the city, it welcomes all and provides an affordable place for everyone to enjoy. During this pandemic era, it has been the only form of exercise and societal interaction for many.”

Besides, members of Save PS Golf say, even if the city did choose to close the courses, current regulations prohibit the sale of the land to developers — further proof that it will always be available for the public.

“Our mission right now is to continue to unify our supporters and let the Palm Springs City Council understand we, the community, do not want to see the Tahquitz Creek municipal golf courses sold – for any purpose,” Ernest Cecena, who chairs the Tahquitz Golf Course Neighborhood Association, said in an email Sunday. “These public lands should be reserved for use as golf courses as they have been for the past 60 years.”

Garrison, however, said that should the city give up on golf, she’s not ready to trust that the land would not be sold to developers without involvement from her organization.

“While I would hope that our current (Palm Springs) City Council would not vote in favor of having a change in the general-plan designation to allow for developments on these golf courses, who’s to say that the next City Council wouldn’t support it?” she asked in The Independent story. “And when you take into consideration the fact that the city is losing a minimum of $1 million per year on their golf courses, it’s only a matter of time before a City Council decides to cut their losses and sell the land for development. That would be a tremendous loss for the community.”

Whether the city is losing money at the courses — a claim that so far has not been verified publicly — elected officials have been adamant that they are only working to determine the value of the Tahquitz Creek property, should golf course operations someday cease, and they are not interested in selling it at this point.

In a letter to a resident in late May from Mayor Pro Tem Lisa Middleton, shared on social media, the District 5 councilmember pleaded with the community not to jump to any conclusions about the golf courses.

“We do not have an offer to buy and we have made no decision as to whether to accept an offer to buy and convert should such an offer be forthcoming,” Middleton wrote. “Should there be a proposal to buy and convert the process would be long and involve numerous publicly noticed meetings. I expect we would hear very strongly from all sides of the question.

“From a personal standpoint, I take pride in the ability of our city to make many types of recreation and exercise, including golf at affordable costs, available year-round to residents and visitors.”

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