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VALLEY BUSINESS | BIG GREEN: COUNTRY CLUBS MAKE A COMEBACK

Wildlife Issues Are Now Par for the Course

Nature: Calabasas firm, which is building a new golf facility in Sylmar, must deal with increasing environmental concerns. It's an industrywide trend.

July 06, 1999|MAGGIE BARNETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SYLMAR — At the north end of the San Fernando Valley, Environmental Golf Inc. is working on its latest creation: the Cascades Golf Club.

The 18-hole public course, scheduled to open in September, will surround the new Cascades Business Park near the junction of the Golden State and Foothill freeways. It will be one of more than 400 courses built by Calabasas-based Environmental Golf since its founding in 1991.

The company, with annual revenues in the $50-million range, takes a soup-to-nuts approach to its business, said Michael L. Dingman, senior vice president.

"There is no company in existence in golf that does construction/development, maintenance and management," Dingman said, adding that industry giants like American Golf tend to focus on just one or two of these areas.

Environmental Golf is a subsidiary of Calabasas-based Environmental Industries, a privately held company with annual revenues exceeding $350 million. Other divisions include Valley Crest Tree Co., Valley Crest Landscape Inc. and Western Landscape Construction.

Although perhaps best known as a course builder, Environmental Golf also manages seven courses and provides maintenance at 36. It also owns or has equity stakes in six courses.

The company, which employs 850 nationwide--including 20 at its Calabasas headquarters--hopes to grow revenues by 20% to 25% over the next five years, Dingman said.

That could be tough--especially with dwindling open space and a potential slowdown in demand for new courses.

Dingman said the company recognizes these obstacles and hopes to expand in other areas, including renovation of older courses. Often that means adding more efficient irrigation systems, disease- and drought-tolerant grasses and native plants and wildlife habitat.

"Renovation is only 10% of our business," said Dingman, "But we expect it will increase 30% to 40% a year."

Pressure to build more environmentally sound golf courses has been building for a number of years, industry officials say.

Greens and fairways require lots of water, fertilizer and pesticides to stay in top shape--making them an easy target for environmentalists who claim the runoff from the courses poses a hazard to wildlife and water resources.

"All the major architects working today are keenly aware of sensitive environmental issues," said Judy Thompson of the National Golf Foundation.

Dingman said much of Environmental Golf's work consists of building riparian wetlands and animal habitats to provide refuge for birds and animals who might be displaced by a new golf course.

The company has the word "environmental" in its name because it is a subsidiary of Environmental Industries, Dingman said. But he said the company is sensitive to environmental issues.

"We try to eliminate or minimize environmental impact to the point of insignificance before construction begins," Dingman said.

Environmentalists, however, say golf courses remain an unnatural intrusion.

"The last thing we need is another golf course replacing another farm, another mountain, another beach," said Mark Massara of the national Sierra Club's Coastal Program. "No matter how many environmental features they've tacked onto the project."

"My job isn't to debate those issues," Dingman responded. "Once a golf course is permitted, my job is to build or operate the course in the most responsible method possible.

"There's a fine line between real estate development and environmental issues . . . we try hard to mesh that. Every development is different. In some cases we preserve significant ecological areas. In other cases we've re-created wetlands habitat for animals and introduced native plants," he said.

He also said the company goes out of its way to ensure its courses won't harm existing wildlife.

In 1997, for example, naturalists charged that a fairway on the company's newly built Glen Annie course in Santa Barbara was blocking the native frogs' path between two creeks. The frogs, they said, wouldn't cross the grass.

As part of a settlement, Environmental Golf spent $250,000 to build a stone corridor below the green. And, to capitalize on the publicity, the company also built a frog-themed restaurant and clubhouse.

"No one has seen a frog use the crossing yet, but they're on the grass and in the clubhouse," Dingman said. The $250,000 investment in the stone crossing was more than recouped in free publicity, he added.

Dingman also said the company took the high road in dealing with another common golf course problem: coots. These waterfowl ravish the sod, and many courses shoot or poison them. Instead, Environmental Golf brought in a border collie trained to herd birds off the fairways and into the ponds.

"She's actually trained them," Dingman said. "Now, when they see her coming, they head for the water."

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