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Tuesday, December 18 , 2018, 8:43 pm | Fair 50º


Glen Annie Golf Club: A Matter of Course, or Curse?

There were grand plans for the working man, but the land, a lawsuit, red tape and bad timing were no ordinary hazards. First in a series

[Noozhawk’s note: Earlier this summer, Glen Annie Golf Club found itself insolvent, hopelessly mired in debt. Course owner Burt Sperber insisted that the only way to save it was for Goleta to annex and rezone the land to residential status from agriculture, allow him to build as many as 185 houses, and shrink the field of play to an executive course. The City Council voted 3-2 against studying the possibility, and Sperber found himself unable to pay back investors, who foreclosed.

In early July, local golfers rejoiced when the investors — Touchstone Golf LLC — announced they would reopen the course and run it as is, with no immediate plans for changes. In the long run, however, the future remains uncertain.

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the past, present and future of the Glen Annie property, and similar, emblematic projects on the South Coast. Click here for the second article.]

When John O’Shaughnessy decided, around 1990, that he wanted to build a golf course in the Goleta Valley, he had little reason to believe it would lead him to financial disaster.

Now 79, O’Shaughnessy had been wildly successful in his endeavors. He owned a construction business that at one point employed nearly 100 people. Many of Goleta’s sewers and storm drains were built by his company.

His success even extended into the world of golf; it was O’Shaughnessy, for instance, who was credited with making Goleta’s Twin Lakes executive golf course what it is today. He also had a hand in the Santa Barbara Municipal Golf Club, where he and a partner made a tidy profit operating the pro shop, driving range and cart rentals.

But Glen Annie Golf Club was different, and it posed no ordinary challenge. The property — with its gently rolling terrain teeming with wildlife and natural habitat, and located on the edge of a burgeoning community — was a minefield.

For the golfing and viewing public, however, the majestic 18-hole course of today looks nothing like a disaster.

Despite its well-publicized financial problems, the course — at 405 Glen Annie Road, north of Cathedral Oaks Road and just outside Goleta’s city limits — wows local golfers with its undulating hills, bluff-top tee-boxes, sweeping ocean views and impressive wildlife habitats. A tree near hole No. 6 is home to a nest that is used every year by a family of hawks.

But for the developers — first O’Shaughnessy and then Burt Sperber, who later took the reins from O’Shaughnessy — the result has been far from beautiful.

In part, they are the victims of bad timing. During the past couple of decades, the golf industry has witnessed a meteoric rise and fall. The boom began in the early 1990s and peaked around 1997, when Tiger Woods won his first major tournament, inspiring millions of beginners to pick up the game. Glen Annie opened in December of that year, at the tail end of the frenzy — and the front end of a long slump.

Around the country, other golf courses sprung up like weeds. During 2000, more than one course a day opened across the United States, according to the National Golf Foundation. But the craze died down quickly. In 2006, golf courses nationwide logged 17 million fewer rounds than in 2000. Since the dawn of the new millennium, hundreds of courses have closed.

But the tale of the Glen Annie Golf Club also underscores a local phenomenon: When it comes to development, the Goleta Valley can be an exceptionally bloody battleground.

If, in the coming years, Glen Annie fails, it could be said that the entire concept of the course was ill-fated. But if it survives and thrives, it could be said that the developers — first O’Shaughnessy and then Sperber — were the sacrificial lambs.

From the beginning, the process of developing Glen Annie was fraught with obstacles: lawsuits with environmentalists, the need for major habitat restorations, the recession of the early 1990s, the public’s waning interest in golf, and layer upon layer of governmental red tape.

To be fair, environmentalists argue that Santa Barbara County wasn’t restrictive enough.

Glen Annie Golf Club opened in 1997 with expectations of 80,000 rounds of golf annually. To date, 50,000 rounds is the most it has ever logged in a year.
Glen Annie Golf Club opened in 1997 with expectations of 80,000 rounds of golf annually. To date, 50,000 rounds is the most it has ever logged in a year. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Brian Trautwein, co-founder of the Santa Barbara Urban Creeks Council — the environmental organization that filed suit over the course in the early 1990s — says the land was ultra-sensitive: It was home to rare species of plants and animals, such as the Western pond turtle. The developers, he added, were overambitious, proposing to bury 1,000 feet of creek underground. (The club ended up burying part of the creek, but less than what was originally called for, as a result of the lawsuit, Trautwein said.)

“Right away, we had concerns,” said Trautwein, now an analyst with the Environmental Defense Center, which supplied the attorneys for the lawsuit.

For O’Shaughnessy, the entire ordeal was a nightmare that, when all was said and done, cost him $3 million. Although a successful businessman, O’Shaughnessy wasn’t wealthy enough to take that kind of a financial hit without suffering consequences.

In an effort to reduce his debt load, which largely stemmed from his golf course misadventure, O’Shaughnessy had to liquidate. He sold his 3,800-square-foot home on several acres overlooking Santa Barbara. In its place he bought a trailer in the San Vicente Mobile Home Park, where he lives today.

“I personally lost $3 million, and seven years of my life,” said O’Shaughnessy, sitting in an office at O’Shaughnessy Construction on South Kellogg Avenue. (The business, which once bustled with 90-plus employees, now employs four people, including him.)

“But am I glad it’s built? Yes. Do I wish I hadn’t started it? Yes, I wish I hadn’t.”

Sperber, meanwhile, owned the course from its grand opening in late 1997 to its inauspicious foreclosure in the summer of 2009. (He couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.) His accomplishment — building a course on such environmentally sensitive terrain — was monumental, even by the standards of an expensive industry.

The typical cost of building a course of Glen Annie’s caliber falls between $2 million and $10 million, said Rich Nahas, the club’s longtime general manager. For Sperber, the price tag reached $20 million, thanks to the lawsuit, and the resulting environmental mitigation to maintain the wildlife, restore the native plants and keep the creek clean. Nahas added that, over time, due to Sperber’s inability to pay down the debt, the cost of development swelled to $30 million. The course reportedly loses $1 million a year.

Nahas said Sperber has taken the loss hard.

“He’s very emotional about it and very sad about the way things happened,” Nahas said. “To see him suffer those financial hardships and walk away taking such a heavy loss is very difficult for me.”

A Dream That Seemed Within Reach

At a lanky 5-foot-10, O’Shaughnessy is an affable-but-serious man who speaks haltingly, but thoughtfully. Although hard of hearing, he says he’s in good health, adding that his mother is still alive at 102. Despite the major setback of Glen Annie, he said he’s doing OK financially.

“I’ll eat the rest of my life,” he said.

O’Shaughnessy is philosophical about the quagmire of Glen Annie — and any development that goes awry, for that matter.

“You know, my philosophy has always been: Those who don’t mistakes don’t do anything,’” he said. “So I made a mistake. I survived it.”

In the late 1980s, O’Shaughnessy had a dream: to build a private golf course on the South Coast that the working man could afford. There was ample reason to believe he would succeed.

Three decades before, water from the newly man-made Lake Cachuma had become available to the public, paving the way for a development boom in the Goleta Valley. O’Shaughnessy had the foresight to move to Santa Barbara County from the Los Angeles area, bringing some equipment from his father’s contracting company.

A population explosion ensued. From 1958 to about 1970, O’Shaughnessy Construction built about 70 percent of all the sewers and storm drains in the Goleta Valley. To this day, much of Goleta’s infrastructure was built by his company.

His foray into the golf business began inadvertently, in the mid-1960s. O’Shaughnessy Construction had installed the irrigation system for the Fairview Community Golf Center — now Twin Lakes — but did not get paid. For compensation, O’Shaughnessy became part owner of the tiny course at 6034 Hollister Ave. O’Shaughnessy eventually bought out the co-owner. As the sole owner, he expanded the course, furnishing it with a couple of longer holes and two mini lakes — hence the “Twin Lakes” name.

Then, in 1981, he and a partner became the concessionaires at Santa Barbara’s municipal course at 3500 McCaw Ave., off Las Positas Road. (They continued this venture until December 2008.)

“We were making a lot of money,” said O’Shaughnessy, referring to the period of the late 1980s.

But he and his business partner, Richard Chavez, worried that the city would take a bite out of their profits.

“I understand politics and all of that,” O’Shaughnessy said. “They couldn’t allow somebody to make a lot of money off them.”

On top of all else, at that time, the golf business was on the upswing.

These days, the Santa Barbara Municipal Golf Club struggles to log 70,000 rounds. Twenty years ago, however, it was racking up a staggering 100,000 rounds a year. Even more astonishing, it was turning away 90,000 golfers annually, O’Shaughnessy said.

The demand seemed to be there.

Quest for a New Course

O’Shaughnessy and Chavez decided it was time to add another golf course to the South Coast.

To find the ideal spot, O’Shaughnessy hopped into his beloved little airplane — which, like his house, he’d later have to sell — and flew over the county, scouring the open space from Gaviota to Carpinteria.

The best place seemed to be a 160-acre swath of rolling hills just north of Cathedral Oaks and west of Glenn Annie. The land was a patchwork of properties belonging to four owners. It didn’t seem to be very viable for agriculture; much of the land was filled with avocado and lemon trees — all dead, he said.

O’Shaughnessy said he was told the land hadn’t been farmed profitably since it was planted in walnuts a half-century before.

“It was the best place that we could find that was big enough to build a golf course on, and had a potential for water,” he said. “Reclaimed water was within an acceptable distance.”

Around 1990, O’Shaughnessy purchased the land from the four owners. Then he entered the bramble patch of the county permitting process. O’Shaughnessy’s specific memory of the numerous obstacles he encountered is hazy, but by his telling, the county threw up roadblocks at every turn.

County staff members, for instance, worried that the land harbored buried ancient artifacts from the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. O’Shaughnessy’s geologist insisted he already had surveyed the land, and determined that any artifacts had long ago been crushed by agricultural equipment. Nonetheless, O’Shaughnessy spent $150,000 for another study, which came to the same conclusion.

County officials also believed the land had been home to a native plant called Ventura coastal sage, and insisted he plant 40 to 50 acres of it. This, too, proved erroneous: The plant they thought was coastal sage turned out to be a weed, O’Shaughnessy said.

In addition, county staff members believed the area constituted a wetland habitat.

The California Department of Fish & Game also jumped into the fray, informing O’Shaughnessy he must build an amphibian corridor — essentially a ditch through the middle of the property — where snakes and lizards could pass.

Finally, the Urban Creeks Council sued, with the help of the Environmental Defense Center.

Former Goleta Mayor Jean Blois said she was rooting for the golf course.

“It was just sad because, at the end, he didn’t have any interest in it at all,” she said of O’Shaughnessy. “I mean, it was just a mess. ... The fact that it ever was finished was quite amazing.”

Eventually, sometime around 1995 — after a half-decade of jumping through bureaucratic hoops — O’Shaughnessy obtained his permits. But by then, the economy was bruising from the recession of the early 1990s, and O’Shaughnessy couldn’t find investors to help him finance the construction.

A year or so later, he put the land up for sale, finding a buyer in Sperber, a successful landscaping entrepreneur who decided to get into the golf-course development business by buying out troubled owners.

“And we surely were in trouble,” O’Shaughnessy said.

Glen Annie: An Environmental Leader?

Sperber inherited O’Shaughnessy’s lawsuit with the Urban Creeks Council, but forged ahead with the development.

The course opened in 1997 — $20 million later.

Nahas said the settlement helped Glen Annie become a nationwide leader in environmentally friendly development.

For instance, the developers created a corridor for coyotes and roadrunners, and perches in trees for raptors, he said.

They stripped a nearby hillside of invasive weeds, replacing them with native plants, and they created an elaborate drainage system to prevent fertilizer-tainted runoff from flowing into the creek.

Trautwein is skeptical, however, of Nahas’ claim that the course is an environmental leader, pointing out that some of the settlement’s terms remain unfulfilled.

But he added, “They have fulfilled most of the requirements; it may well be it was close to all.”

In any event, once the course opened, it quickly was confronted by another challenge: finding enough customers to pay for the steep costs of development. For one thing, Glen Annie had to compete for golfers with another newly opened course, Rancho San Marcos Golf Course, off Highway 154 just over San Marcos Pass in the Santa Ynez Valley. Worse, the nationwide golf craze was about to take a nosedive.

Glen Annie’s initial business model assumed it would sell 80,000 rounds every year. To date, the course’s best year was in 2001, when it logged 50,000.

Rancho San Marcos Golf Course, too, has floundered. It closed for a half-year in 2006 to complete a redesign, but has since reopened.

Meanwhile, O’Shaughnessy said he was sad to see Sperber fail.

“I think the community needs it,” he said of the course. “Hopefully the new owners have found the right way to run it.”

Looking back, Willy Chamberlin, a Santa Ynez Valley rancher who represented the 3rd District on the county Board of Supervisors in the early 1990s, said the way it ended for O’Shaughnessy was a shame.

“He had tremendous foresight and a tremendous dream,” Chamberlin told Noozhawk. “John was a businessman who wanted to make a little money, but he really wanted to provide a good opportunity for the working man. ... He never was able to accomplish it.”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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