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Closed Adobe Creek golf course in rough times

When Robert DeCelles bought his home adjacent to the Adobe Creek Golf Course in east Petaluma, he savored his picturesque view on the fourth fairway of the verdant green links.

Now, as he sits on his patio on the late spring evenings, it’s not uncommon to see rats skittering along the fence line that divides his home from a course that he says is overgrown with weeds. Those rodents have infested his property and even his car’s engine compartment. An $850 pest removal bill came amid his growing unease about the fate of the now closed golf course that has become a neighborhood blight.

“It’s pretty god awful,” DeCelles said as he listed additional concerns about fire danger, property values and other vermin, like skunks, that have become an unwelcome addition to his backyard.

DeCelles’ home is among 320 residences in the Adobe Creek Homeowners Association, a community in flux after the Adobe Creek Golf Course closed Jan. 1 because of declining business. Six months after the 18-hole course owned by Adobe Investments, LLC shut down, the future of the 100-acre property remains uncertain. The land is split between the city and the county’s jurisdiction, and is entangled in a complex web of regulatory and land use hurdles.

Jack Osman, a retired economics professor who bought his Adobe Creek home 19 years ago, is faced with a plight similar to DeCelles’. He acknowledged he paid a premium to buy a home in such close proximity to the public course, but is now faced with declining values and daily nuisances.

“We love Petaluma but the very prominent reason why we moved here is the fact the golf course is here,” Osman said. “I was playing golf here for four or five years before we got a place here. And we specifically bought the home for the location.”

He feels changes made to the layout of the course and the shuttering of the clubhouse facility contributed to its failure. Adobe Investments bought the property in 2011 from local developer Bill Gallagher. Gallagher purchased the course earlier that year after the previous owners filed for bankruptcy and the land was placed into a court-appointed receivership.

Homeowners concerned

After receiving 105 complaints from homeowners since March 8 outlining deteriorating conditions, including weeds, dead trees, trespassers, unsafe sidewalks and a dilapidated clubhouse, the city sent a May 5 letter to the course owners citing six separate violations and setting deadlines to remedy the issues to avoid paying up to $1,000 a day for each violation. The city’s sole code enforcement officer is set to visit the property weekly and police are regularly patrolling to quell transient activity.

Richard Coombs, who’s a general partner in Adobe Investments and Rooster Run Golf Club, which operate Petaluma’s two public golf courses, said crews are tackling the maintenance to comply with the city’s requests. Meanwhile, he’s working with the homeowners association to identify a “mutually agreeable” long-term solution, though he said talks are largely stalled as he awaits a response from the board. He said last week he plans to continue current maintenance of the greens for at least 30 days.

Coombs declined to discuss potential solutions or current proposals, though he said he doesn’t believe the city’s economy can sustain more than one public golf course. The business lost $200,000 thousand a year for its last two years in operation despite efforts to keep the operation viable, he said.

“We are trying to do everything we can to work cooperatively,” said Coombs, who is also a general partner of Airport Business Center, a separate entity that’s a major developer in the county.

Sally Hanson, president of the homeowners’ association, declined to comment on the board’s desired outcomes or a time-frame for a resolution. DeCelles and Osman say they’d like to see the golf course back in business.

A Dec. 12 letter to homeowners from the operators suggested several options, including a private park managed by the homeowners association that would cost an estimated $96,000 a year for upkeep or a purchase of the golf course by the association for $3.52 million, equal to the developer’s current investment. Such an agreement would cost residents an estimated $650,000 annually while the business would likely continue to bleed financially. Also proposed was a vineyard and winery with additional homes and a nine-hole golf course, among other options.

Regulatory maze

The path forward is murky, as the land within the city limits is governed by a zoning requirement enacted in 1989 mandating that public access and use of the golf course be preserved through 2039. It’s also under an open space easement requiring the property be maintained with a golf course or open space use in perpetuity, barring other development.

Applications for changes in zoning could be considered by city officials, though City Attorney Eric Danly said further exploration into constraints surrounding the easement granted by the original developer would be necessary if an amendment was sought. The city can take legal action against the property owners for undertaking uses that conflict with the zoning ordinance or open space easement, or that cause public nuisances on the property.

According to Danly, those requirements mean that Coombs will have to continue to operate a public course on the land in the city’s boundaries. He said the city plans to circle back for conversations with the property owners and the homeowners, and a letter outlining the land use requirements has been sent to the owners.

“I think the city and the golf course owners disagree on whether the PUD zoning for the golf course actually obligates the owners to maintain the course in operation,” he said in an email. “The city does not concede that it doesn’t, and I believe the course owners do not concede that it does. I think the city and the owners would also disagree on whether there is a path to obtain a remedy requiring that the course remain in operation.”

Coombs, who said his title company failed to disclose the open space easement when the land was purchased, said the city can’t force his private business to stay in operation.

“There are no provisions, to our understanding … with the city of Petaluma that can force us to operate a golf course which is losing money,” he said.

On the county’s side, the easement allows for open space or golf course use, meaning its current state isn’t in violation of those terms, according to Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt. It may be a challenge to amend the easement to allow for the development of homes or other uses that fall outside those categories, he said.

“I’ve told the homeowners from day one and on the numerous occasions I’ve met with them that it’s really the city and the HOA and the property owners that need to come to grips with what they’re going to do, and the county will follow suit,” he said.

Petaluma City Councilman Chris Albertson said the owners should stick to the agreement to operate a public golf course through 2039.

“That was the agreement, we’re not asking for a change,” he said. “We’re asking you to abide by the agreement that was read, reviewed and signed.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)