Constructing a golf course is a legitimate use of public parkland, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled. The court ruled against an Orange County citizens group that alleged the county government was improperly using land dedicated for a park.
At issue was Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley, a World War II military airfield that the county acquired from the federal government in 1973. The terms of the sale required the county to keep the 507-acre tract around the former runways for park and recreational uses. While leasing the land prior to purchasing it, the county had constructed a golf course on part of the site. During the 1980s, the county built a second golf course.
In the early 1990s, the county purchased the remaining 137 acres of the former airfield, which the county had previously leased and left open to the public. The purchase of this "core area" came with an unrestricted title, and the county said it would develop "a mix of traditional commercial recreational uses."
The county then undertook an extensive planning process that involved 17 public meetings and preparation of an environmental impact report. In May 1999, the Board of Supervisors decided to build a golf course, sports fields and a nature center on the core area.
An organization called Save Mile Square Park Committee (SMSPC) sued. The group argued that the county was developing park property for non-park purposes without providing a replacement park or funds for a replacement, in violation of Public Resources Code § 5401. The group also alleged due process violations under the Federal Civil Rights Act.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Eileen Moore issued summary judgment for the county, and a three-judge panel of the Fourth District, Division Three, unanimously upheld the decision.
The case turned on the determination of what is a permissible use of parkland. The citizens group said that a golf course might be a proper use but that in this case the proposed golf course would displace hobbyists who have used the core area for years to fly model airplanes, landsail, walk, and ride bicycles.
In his opinion, Justice William Bedsworth said he could find no California cases that address whether a golf course is a legitimate park use. However, some out-of-state rulings have concluded a golf course is a park use. He also pointed to definitions of a park found in San Vicente Etc. Sch. v. County of L.A., (1956) 147 Cal.App2d, 79, and to the California Wildlife, Coastal and Park Land Conservation Act. San Vicente says a park "is a pleasure ground set apart of recreation of the public, to promote its health and enjoyment." The conservation act calls a park "a tract of land … to be used by the public as a place for rest, recreation, education, exercise, inspiration and enjoyment." The court held that either definition fits a golf course.
"It is apparent that the real dispute is over how the core area of Mile Square Park should be used — not whether golf is a park purpose," Bedsworth wrote. "SMSPC's complaint is political, not legal. And were we to accede to it, we would be taking on the role of a three-person Legislature."
Whether or not the decision to build a golf course was wise, it was entirely legal, the court held.
As for the due process claims, the court shot those down quickly. The citizens group argued it had a right to use the parkland and that the county took the right without due process. But the court ruled that the site remains parkland, and the "imagined right" did not exist.
Save Mile Square Park Committee v. County of Orange, No. G027787, 01 C.D.O.S. 8913, 01 DJDAR 11083. Filed October 16, 2001
For SMSPC: Vincent Goodwin, Goodwin & Wynen, (714) 565-1918.
For the county: Stephen Martino, Madory, Zell & Pleiss, (714) 832-3772.