More than 100 neighbors and others concerned with the future of the former Bel Air Greens golf course tuned into Zoom Wednesday evening for what was described as a “neighborhood outreach meeting.” The event turned into a virtual lashing of the land’s current leaseholder that was both emotional and comical at times.
The meeting was one of two required by the city as the leaseholder, Albert Howell, attempts to go through the steps of converting the decaying former golf course from open space to residential use. That process kicked off last November when Howell filed an intent to convert application for the 35 acres off El Cielo Road adjacent to Mesquite Golf & Country Club.
If Wednesday’s meeting indicated what lies ahead, those interested in the land’s future are in for a wild ride during what city staff said would be a process that could take more than a year to complete. Many in the audience struggled to get their points across as fellow meeting attendees failed to mute themselves, assuring the sound of personal conversations, barking dogs, chirping cell phones, and television news broadcasts playing in the background were nearly as prominent as petitioners.
At the end of 75 minutes of testimony, those who were able to have their voices heard through the din made one thing clear: No developer will have it easy building homes on some of the last remaining open space in the city. And Howell, despite his insistence otherwise, was informed he does not currently hold the lease to land zoned for housing and probably never will.
“It’s important that we all take a pause and remember that this land is designated open space,” said Jane Garrison, president of an organization that was awarded a $4 million grant to purchase the land from its owners, five members of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. “It has been designated open space for years, and the applicant knew what he bought. He’s just looking to sell this land to developers, and this application doesn’t event come remotely close to meeting the requirements of the golf course conversion ordinance.”
Garrison’s organization, Oswit Land Trust (OLT), has big plans for the former golf course, as well as the Mesquite course and one of two city-owned courses that comprise Tahquitz Creek Golf Resort. OLT, with backing from the Center for Public Land, hopes to create the Mesquite Desert Preserve, a 500-acre “beautiful natural desert setting with walking paths, educational plaques, community gardens and more.”
Howell appears to have big plans as well, submitting plot maps showing the land divvied up into more than 70 10,000-square-foot lots for future homes. During the meeting he said he anticipates purchasing the land from the tribal allottees and flipping it to potential developers.
“We are not developing homes,” Howell said. “We are developing lots and plan to sell them to builders. At this point, we are simply developing single-family lots.”
Howell insisted his application was merely a formality and that future home developers would be acquiring land already zoned to allow for homes. Technically, city zoning maps show that’s true. But that zoning was applied in the 1970s, and the city has since declared the land open space, which takes precedent over the original zoning.
“Oswit Land Trust is willing to purchase this from the allottees and from Mr. Howell,” Garrison said in response to Howell’s claims. “We’re only allowed to pay fair market value for the land under terms of the grant. If this goes through it prevents us from buying it.
“We are willing to buy the property. We want to buy the property. We want to create an incredible desert preserve for our community. Mr. Howell, I would beg you from our community … please work with us and let us create this.”
Garrison’s pleas drew applause from the audience and cheers in the group chat. They also echoed the feeling in the room.
“This property has been an eyesore for the last five years,” said Rosemary Flaherty, who lives nearby and supports the preserve. “…Something needs to be done with this property to make it functional. …It’s time to move forward with this property because it’s only going to deteriorate further.”
Added Julie Salazar, growing emotional: “We owe it to Palm Springs to stand up tall for our city and protect this land.”
More information: The city maintains a website detailing Howell’s plans for the property, including the site plan, a timeline, and complete project details. It can be viewed here.