Editorials | Environmental | February 2009
|Going for the Green|
Jose Luis Jiménez - San Diego Union-Tribune
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Rock outcroppings frame the view toward Islas de Todos Santos in the Pacific Ocean; sea lions play in the clear blue water; caves shelter the shells left by indigenous people who roamed the area hundreds of years ago.
|Golfer Tiger Woods speaks at a news conference in Thousand Oaks, California, December 17, 2008. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)|
Even as worldwide economic troubles continue to mount, the property near Ensenada is expected to join the development trend this summer as work begins to transform it into a golf course designed by Tiger Woods. Punta Brava, the developers say, will be breathtaking.
But unless you have at least $3 million to buy an estate home site or a villa, don't bother calling for a tee time when the ultra-private course opens, scheduled for 2011. Only homeowners and their guests will be allowed to play it.
Some real estate experts question the wisdom of developing a high-priced golf club in the midst of a slumping global economy. It is also in an area known more for spring breakers and retired U.S. expats than as an exclusive tourist destination. In addition, a high level of violent crime in Mexico, mainly fueled by drug gangs, has made headlines in the United States and across the world.
Local environmentalists also are concerned about the potential damage that could be done to the coastal environment by the introduction of non-native grass and the chemicals needed to keep it green.
Texas-based developer Brady Oman pledges nothing will reach the ocean, except for a few errant golf shots. In a recent interview, Oman said the company is committed to keeping the $100 million project as environmentally friendly as possible.
He also said the development is fully financed, thanks to the deep pockets of Red McCombs, who co-founded media giant Clear Channel Communications.
And he expects well-to-do golf lovers will be lining up to purchase property so they can play on only the third course designed by Woods. Developers say that with water on three sides and a 1,200-foot peak at the entry to the project, the location is secure.
“We are really confident because of the site, the team of developers and the proximity to Southern California,” Oman said. “The site is a once-in-a-lifetime site.”
Oman, who has developed golf-and-housing projects in Texas, started scouting the peninsula several years ago. Another member of the development team found the site in 2006, near the famous La Bufadora sea geyser and about 10 miles west of Highway 1, the main north-south route in Baja California. An Ensenada family that planned to use the 300 acres for retreats sold the property and got a five-acre estate on the site.
Next was getting the partners on board. Woods visited the site in 2007, committed to the development and stopped by again after his dramatic U.S. Open win at Torrey Pines last summer.
With Woods on board, Oman said it was easy to get McCombs to back the deal. After the announcement of the project at a Beverly Hills hotel in October, a sales office was opened in downtown San Diego. A helicopter is available to fly potential buyers to the property, where the par-70 golf course is staked out, along with the locations of the clubhouse, spa and an ocean club with a pool.
So far, 12 people have committed to purchasing at the development, including Woods himself. A total of 40 estate home sites and 100 villas will be sold. Owners will have the opportunity to hosts guests at 20 of the villas; the exact arrangements are being worked out, according to the developers.
Approximately 750 people will be employed during the construction phase, with 200 permanent jobs afterward. Potable water will be provided by a desalination plant, and irrigation water will drain into retention ponds, which will then be recycled through a treatment plant, Oman said.
“Nothing goes into the ocean,” Oman said.
While local environmentalists applaud the steps taken to lessen the environmental impacts, the immediate surroundings will be affected, said Juan Manuel Rodríguez, who heads the department of urban and environmental studies at Colegio de la Frontera Norte, or COLEF, a Tijuana-area think tank.
Manuel, who attended the public hearing for the project last month before Mexico's environmental agency, cited three areas of concern.
The first is the adverse impact that earth moving and grading would have on the animals and plants that inhabit the site and nearby waters. Next, the area is a “dry coastal zone,” and introducing lots of water and chemicals would change the indigenous vegetation.
Lastly, dumping the highly concentrated salt residue produced by desalination plants into the ocean could harm the sea plants and creatures near the outfall.
“Little by little, the grass on the golf course will invade the indigenous coastal vegetation,” Manuel said. “What the people of Ensenada want is that the beautiful coastal views and access to the surrounding waters be preserved.”
The development along northern Baja California's Pacific coast is turning it into an extension of urban Southern California, said Horacio de la Cueva, a specialist in biological conservation with CICESE, a scientific think tank near Ensenada.
“One of the things Baja California has to offer is natural beauty. And many people are willing to pay to enjoy that experience,” he said.
Golf courses are not environmentally friendly, but instead “green asphalt,” de la Cueva said.
“Once they destroy the landscape, it will never return.”
With only 120 properties for sale, the developers have little inventory to sell compared with other golf course developments. But high prices, comparable to ocean-view properties in La Jolla, could make it a difficult sale in what many economists call a worldwide recession that may last for years, said Leonard Baron, a lecturer at SDSU's business school.
The local real estate expert also questions the location near Ensenada, which is not known as a world-class tourist spot, like Cabo San Lucas to the south. Recent headlines about violence in Mexico also may make people question whether it is a wise investment.
There is also the larger issue of buying property in a foreign country and being subject to its laws.
“You're trying to create a place for people to go to that they wouldn't traditionally go to,” Baron said. “Do I want to live in such a remote area? What is the long-term viability? Those may be questions potential buyers are asking.”
Oman said the property title is clear and title insurance will be offered through a U.S. company.
Further, the Mexican government has adopted reforms to real estate laws to avoid the nightmare scenarios some Americans have experienced in the region, said Oscar Escobedo, Baja California's tourism secretary.
In 2000, more than 200 U.S. citizens at Punta Banda, which is a few miles from the Punta Brava site, were evicted after being caught in the middle of a coastal property dispute between a communal landholding group and private owners. They were forcibly removed from their homes when the land was restored to the private landowners.
The secretary said he is well aware of the tough economic climate. He noted that 18 developments between Tijuana and Ensenada have been halted for financial reasons.
But Escobedo said he is confident Punta Brava, which is expected to be permitted within a few weeks, will succeed and bring a new class of high-end tourism to the region as owners invite friends and business partners to play golf. He said he believes the current crime wave, which his office has blamed for as much as a 70 percent drop in visitors across the Mexican state, will pass and that tourism will rebound. “This golf course has the potential of putting Baja California on the map as a worldwide golf destination,” Escobedo said in an interview. “I don't see the current violence having a long-term impact. This is not the first time, nor the last, that Mexico goes through a crisis.”