For the first time in six months, the Oro Valley Town Council gave public remarks about the fate of the town-owned golf courses and community center. It seems their opinions have not changed much.

A special meeting was held last Wednesday evening at the Oro Valley Church of the Nazarene, where 720 residents attended and more than 100 watched online. Residents have begun to demand answers from their elected officials, with a little over a month left before the council’s self-imposed September deadline for a final decision to keep, reconfigure or close the 45 holes of golf.

The options, as laid out by town staff, are to keep the current 36 holes, change to a 27 or 18 hole configuration, or completely close the courses and convert it to natural open space or a public park. The nine holes at Pusch Ridge would likely be leased back to HSL Properties, from which the town purchased the facilities in December 2014.

The option with the least amount of taxpayer support to the facilities would be the complete closure of the courses. However, converting it to natural open space or a public park requires significant capital investments and ongoing maintenance with no revenue from golf membership dues and daily play fees.

The 36-hole option requires the second least amount of taxpayer support, and was the most popular option among residents who spoke at the July 24 meeting, mainly because course-adjacent homeowners fear a land use change would significantly decrease their property values. 

Many of those residents paid between $30,000 to $40,000 in premiums when they purchased their homes with fairway views.

Exactly 50 people spoke at the meeting, including Randy Karrer, Fire Chief of Golder Ranch Fire District, which serves Oro Valley. He urged the council to retain the 36 holes, because a decrease in property values would cut funding to the department.

“We’re very similar to a school district, we operate solely on property tax,” Karrer said. “[A golf course closure] would have a cumulative and lasting effect that would most certainly injure the fire district in future years. This would result in one of two options: a significant increase in property taxes to offset the loss of property valuation, or a significant reduction in public safety service level which would likely mean a reduction in force or layoffs of firefighters and paramedics.”

Residents who spoke at the meeting in support of retaining the holes and community center see the complex as a central gathering place and an asset that draws in tourists.

Some speakers who want to see the golf courses reduced or eliminated cited the original purchase from HSL Properties and the fact that the courses and community center have not been operating in the black this year, as they were expected to. Others called for a need to put more money into other recreational activities that a majority of residents can enjoy. 

Vice Mayor Melanie Barrett pondered what would be an “appropriate” amount of tax subsidy to the golf courses. She told the audience of her research on 25 other cities and towns with municipal golf courses, and stated they all spend less money on golf than Oro Valley, despite several notable variables.

“Granted there are some nuances to the way that these courses are operated, they have different water prices, some are operated as enterprise funds, some are leased, some have restaurants and some don’t, but the bottom line is there’s 25 courses that are owned by these municipalities,” Barrett said.

She concluded that Oro Valley spends more on golf than all the municipalities in the entire state of Arizona combined.

Barrett requested to have a future discussion about the possibility of rezoning the golf courses, even though Gary Cohen, the town attorney, explained at the beginning of the meeting that the purchase agreement only allows for three uses: golf, parks or open space.

Barrett added that she wanted to perform a “sensitivity check” on the town’s golf data, since the company that makes a profit from operating the golf courses, Troon Privé, is the one capturing the numbers.

Council members Rhonda Piña and Steve Solomon pointed out that the town’s data on golf is accurate because it has been audited.

“If they come up with a whole different set of numbers, we’ve got a major problem,” Solomon said. “No one has any basis whatsoever to question their numbers, they’ve been audited by outside agencies, and people who say ‘We don’t believe their numbers’ are just pulling a rabbit out of their hat because they don’t like golf for some reason.”

The town’s budget and finance commission members recently released analyses on the golf course operations that claim differences from the town’s data. Mayor Joe Winfield expressed that he wanted the two entities to come together and agree on a single set of numbers.

Council member Bill Rodman said the early projections about the golf courses were mostly a “shot in the dark,” but now with four years of operational data, the courses are showing to be more and more profitable.

The gap between revenues and expenses for golf and the community center operations has been closing. In fiscal year 2016-2017 the deficit was $2.5 million, the next year it was $2 million, and the projected loss this year is a $1.7 million.

“I felt that I would keep an open mind and see again—since things changed over the first three years—what would happen,” Rodman said at the meeting. “So far in these last eight months, I haven’t heard anything that changes my mind, if anything the situation is better.”

Council member Joyce Jones-Ivey said she wasn’t convinced of the community’s interest in playing golf. She and Winfield asked to see “accurate and specific” repurposing costs for the courses. 

Wilder Landscape Architects previously provided the town with estimates for a conversion to natural open space would cost between $14,800 to $20,000 per acre, not factoring in for irrigated open space, and dependent on council’s final vision.

Conversion to a public park space would be more costly, with a range of $50,000 to $100,000 applied to each acre. This wide range has been attributed to potential investments that would have to be made for a quality park including irrigation, ramadas, ADA accessibility, playgrounds, restrooms, parking and drainage.

There are a combined 138 acres of irrigated turf across the 36 holes.

Piña said the community could suffer “unintended consequences” if the golf courses are closed because of the loss in water revenue. The town pays as a customer to its own water service for the price of the reclaimed water used to irrigate the course. If that income were to go away, it would have to be made up somewhere else.

Oro Valley Water Utility Director Peter Abraham told council that closing the 36 holes would create a net revenue loss of nearly $470,000.

“There’s several different ways to make up revenue losses,” Abraham said. “You can raise rates, you can defer capital, you can not purchase the water resources you were going to purchase.”

After two and a half hours of public comment where most speakers expressed their concern over losses in home values, Winfield read quotes from out-of-state research studies that argue home values would not be impacted. At that point, audience members began to file out of the room.

“There are numerous reports and other things that I could cite that support home values as it relates to open spaces, trail systems, paved trails, and I believe it’s important to give consideration to all the options that are on the table,” Winfield said.

Solomon pointed out that all the options, including the elimination of the golf courses, still require the half-cent sales tax that was enacted four years ago.

“We’ve heard the golf course is an asset, people come here for it, it’s an economic engine, it brings in tourism,” Solomon said. “What is a linear park? It’s a solution looking for a problem. No one has ever asked for a linear park.”

Rodman added that the golf courses and community center are a “major quality of life contribution.”

“We heard tonight what it means to the people,” he said.

The town council will allow time for more public input and discussion on the golf courses at a July 31 regular meeting held in the council chambers, 11000 N. La Cañada Drive, beginning at 6 p.m.

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