Greens Against Greens

Why Is It So Difficult to Play Golf on Long Island?

Playing golf on Long Island can be a glorious experience. On this sliver of land in the Atlantic Ocean, golfers are treated to various types of golf, from playing often windswept layouts along the north and south shores, to more inland, wooded, and hilly courses.

Long Island also has a fairly impressive history of professional golf. In addition to hosting an annual Senior PGA Tour stop—the Lightpath (formerly Northville) Long Island Classic at the Meadow Brook Club—Long Island courses have hosted six U.S. Opens and five PGA Championships. Most recently the U.S. Open stopped at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in 1985 and 1996. The Open will return to Long Island in 2002 on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park, and possibly again at Shinnecock in 2004.

Naturally, Long Island is overflowing with amateur golfers, from occasional duffers to the more serious players.

However, all is not serene on Long Island’s greens. Courses are crammed with folks hooking and slicing down the fairway. Waiting times to tee off can run into the hours any day of the week, and many facilities have reservation systems, which means that the spur-of-the-moment round of golf virtually has become a blessing of the past.

Other than at private membership clubs, it is not unusual for a weekend round of golf to stretch out to more than six hours. At such times, even the most passionate lovers of the game become annoyed, with the glory of Long Island golf decaying into one of those headaches usually reserved for errant drives and three-putts.

Of course, slow play and long lines are market signals to build more golf courses. And some golf entrepreneurs are trying to do just that on Long Island. However, in addition to onerous property taxes, they face hazards from local environmentalists and NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) types who possess absolutely no respect for private property. Even though these crusaders are relatively small in numbers, they are hyperactive and hold considerable sway over lazy, easily frightened politicians. The stories of their assaults on property owners—including those trying to build golf courses—are numerous.

From Racing to Golf

For example, the Bridgehampton Race Circuit had served as a home to big-time auto racing for decades. However, as homes started to spring up around the racetrack where drivers like Mario Andretti competed, complaints about noise increased. Town officials ignored the obvious fact that the raceway was there first and tightened government noise restrictions to the point where the racing left Long Island.

The track owner, Robert M. Rubin, then decided to build a golf course and 20 estate homes, even agreeing to set aside some 150 acres as open space. For greedy environmentalists that was not enough. They wanted it all, and they tried to force state and local taxpayers to buy the land even though the landowner declared he had no intention of selling. After years of battling, the golf-course project seems to be moving ahead—an increasingly rare victory for property rights on Long Island.

Brother and sister Barry Bistrian and Bonnie Krupinski in tony East Hampton saw their dream of a golf course finally coming to fruition in 1999. Their environmental battle with local officials and activists lasted over two decades.

Bill Coore and two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw are the course designers of the East Hampton Golf Club. Small hills mark the front nine, with more of a links style on the back nine. Krupinski notes that the course was laid out with environmental concerns in mind, using native grass, limiting high-maintenance grass mostly to tees and greens, and building with minimal earth movement. As for other benefits to the community, C.J. McDaniels of Crenshaw Golf, which will manage the course, notes that a caddie program for local kids is being established.

The family did not originally plan for a members-only club, but were forced to go that route because local zoning does not allow courses open to the public in residential areas. After all, the local NIMBY crowd couldn’t have golf riffraff from other parts of Long Island invading the very exclusive East Hampton area. The family just wasn’t up to a battle on that zoning issue.

Meanwhile, in Baiting Hollow, Long Island, the 117-year-old Talmage family farm has grown so efficient in recent years that land was freed up for a 36-hole golf resort also to be designed by Coore & Crenshaw. The courses would be located in a breathtaking spot overlooking the Long Island Sound.

As news got out about the proposal, local environmentalists sprang into action. They hurled all sorts of irresponsible accusations about environmental catastrophe at the project, with little regard for the truth. For example, Long Island’s leading environmental activist, Richard Amper, head of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, claimed in a 1998 Newsday op-ed that the course would destroy a rare dwarf beech forest. But as family spokesman Bill Talmage and I walked and climbed his land, he showed me that the golf course will never disturb this thicket. Indeed, he and his family would never want to ruin the beautiful spot where land meets sea. The Talmage family is rooted in a deep respect for their land. They clearly want to do the right thing for the local environment and economy. They are active members of their community who have no plans of moving. Bill Talmage says he wants his grandchildren to be able to say that Grandpa Bill was pretty smart to build this beautiful golf resort, in which the family is a partner.

To build the rhetorical case against the golf project, Amper classified the area as the “Grandifolia Sandhills,” saying this was “one of Long Island’s most environmentally sensitive areas.” While the name of some of the beech trees is in fact “fagus grandifolia,” Talmage says that the “Grandifolia Sandhills” classification is a “complete fabrication.” I asked folks at the National Wilderness Institute: they never heard of it. And I couldn’t find any reference to it when I did various literature searches.

In addition, the project’s opponents said the golf courses would ruin rare migrating sand dunes. In fact, as Talmage points out, beyond the normal changes that nature brings, old trees and massive boulders on the land clearly show that the area is anything but migrating.

Normally, local command-and-control environmentalists and NIMBYists would steamroll the land owner and get him to acquiesce. However, Talmage is in the horticulture business himself, cultivating native, wetland, and erosion-control plants, and is knowledgeable about the issues at hand. He has easily debunked the numerous charges made by his opponents.

Tragically, though, the pseudo-science of Long Island enviro-politics captured many easily duped local politicians, and as a result the resort plan probably will give way to one golf course, some residential homes, and more greenhouses. Talmage says this accomplishes nothing for the local environment, and winds up being less of a benefit for the local economy.

Big-Government Reactionaries

But that does not matter to these local activists. For the most part, these folks cloak their opposition to change in a concern for the environment. More accurately, they can be categorized as big-government reactionaries. They don’t like economic change. One of their costly schemes is to have state and local government buy the development rights of farms on Long Island’s east end, so that the land will always stay agricultural—even as the cost of farming on Long Island becomes more and more prohibitive. The landowners actually have little choice in the end; once their land is placed in the cross hairs of local environmentalists and politicians, it becomes costly to do anything else with it.

The local reactionaries want to be Long Island’s feudal lords, deciding what can and cannot be done with the land. And golf courses are decreed not to be an option. Indeed, Amper has condemned golf courses as “the biggest drinking-water polluters on Long Island.” Groundwater serves as the primary excuse to oppose almost all golf courses, especially on the east end of the island. (The same reason is used to oppose houses, buildings, and most everything else you can think of linked to mankind and civilization.) Indeed, “groundwater protection” has been invoked by opponents of golf course projects in Bridgehampton, East Hampton, and Baiting Hollow.

The environmental activists say that as much land as possible must be left in or revert to a wild state. This demand conveniently ties into their desire to have no more people move into the area and to preserve their way of life.

When I asked about the science undergirding his claim about golf courses and pollution, Amper briefly mentioned pesticides, but then referred me to others for explanation. Speaking with and listening to many of Long Island’s leading environmentalists, I quickly discovered they cannot back up their grandiose statements.

Amper’s hyperbole is contradicted by more sober assessments. A few years ago hydrologist Robert LaMonica told the local county legislature, “There is no reason ever to use water supply as a zoning tool or a restriction on economic development.” And several other local experts note that golf courses are no more polluting than homes or agriculture.

In addition, the protectors of the Long Island pine barrens—essentially large, rather ugly tracts of land made up of little, scruffy pine trees—assert that these areas must be protected because that is where Long Island gets its drinking water. This notion has been the main driving force behind draconian restrictions on land use and the millions of taxpayer dollars spent to buy acres and acres of land. However, knowledgeable experts disagree. Donald Middleton, an environmental consultant and a former regional director of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, was even quoted as saying: “The Long Island aquifer system is not one continuous and interconnecting underground reservoir. Contamination in one part does not extend throughout the entire system. . . . Long Islanders do not get their drinking water from the pine barrens and they never will.”

Why Worry?

A mid-1980s scientific study of golf courses atop sandy, permeable soil in Cape Cod—similar to what you might find on Long Island—reported “little cause for concern about use of currently registered pesticides.” As reported in the September–October 1993 issue of Audubon, the study examined four mature golf courses and looked for about 17 different pesticides in soil and groundwater samples. For good measure, many golf-course managers are choosing organic management, minimizing the use of chemicals, and working to preserve local flora and fauna. The United States Golf Association also does research and offers advice on sound environmental golf practices. One might expect local environmentalists to work with golf course owners, but too often that simply is not the case.

About those opposing his golf plans, the owner of the Bridgehampton land, Robert M. Rubin, told the New York Times last year, “These people are the lunatic fringe.” He continued, “Nobody is more worried about the water than I am. I’ve spent six figures analyzing the situation, and I’m comfortable with it.” The Times also reported that a professor of turf grass science and a hydrogeological consulting firm hired by the town to evaluate Rubin’s plans “deemed the golf proposal plan to be basically in compliance with the various restrictions on the site.”

Undaunted by facts and private property rights, the warriors against golf courses continue to wage their battle on Long Island, aided by politicians unwilling to do the hard work of discovering the truth. And even when property owners come out victorious in the end, the costs in time and resources are tremendous.

What does this all mean for Long Island golfers such as myself? Naturally, if golf entrepreneurs are stymied, golfers will suffer. Limited tee times, long lines, and slow play will remain an aggravating part of the game.

Under these conditions, how am I supposed to get my game in gear for the Senior PGA Tour by the time I turn 50 in about a decade and a half? My wife says I’m dreaming, and she’s probably right. But as a golfer ready to fork over greens fees, at least I could have my dreams shattered by my own abysmal putting, rather than by a bunch of reactionary environmentalists and NIMBYists.