Philadelphia Council exempts Cobbs Creek Golf Course from environmental law

Philadelphia Council exempts Cobbs Creek Golf Course from environmental law

Despite impassioned pleas from some members of the public, the Philadelphia City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a controversial ordinance that would exempt Cobbs Creek golf course renovations from having to adhere to a city environmental law. .

The vote came after a speaker with a ukulele sang a parody of Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi,” best known by its chorus: “Set up a parking lot.”

“They cut down our trees, and they put up a golf course late last night / I heard an awful noise / and a big yellow tractor ripped all our trees off the ground…” the man sang, one of at least a dozen who came out to protest the vote.

The song was a little lighthearted during a sometimes tense Council hearing as opponents spoke out against the proposal.

At issue was an ordinance introduced by Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. that would create an exclusion, known as an overlay zoning district, that would exempt the nonprofit carrying out $65 million in course renovations from the requirements of the city ​​in matters of steep slope. The rules aim to prevent erosion by limiting what can be done to trees, vegetation and sloping ground.

Those opposed to the ordinance primarily objected to exempting the entire 340-acre property.

The Cobbs Creek Foundation, the nonprofit overseeing the renovation of the city-owned historic course, said the exemption was needed to restore the course to its original alignment and to repair existing wetlands and creating more to mitigate chronic flooding, which was one of the factors that caused the course to be halted in 2020.

While the renovations have great public support, they have upset others, particularly after the foundation razed 100 acres of mature trees about a year ago. These forces have since merged as the watchdog of the project.


Concerns about “free rein”

After pushing back on the steep slope issue, Jones amended the ordinance to make the exemption temporary until July 15, 2024. Other amendments prohibit any building from being erected permanently on a slope and also give neighbors a say in high fences.

“We welcome the amendments,” Lawrence Szmulowicz, a Cobbs Creek Environmental Justice volunteer, told the council ahead of the vote.

However, Szmulowicz, who lives in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood, objected, saying the revisions still exempted the entire property, giving the foundation “the freedom to fell trees on any steep slope on the premises. of 350 acres”.

And he said the delay “has no practical value” because he expects the foundation to cut “all the trees it wants well before the exemption ends in July 2024”.

Szmulowicz said the foundation did not provide the public with detailed plans showing where the steep slope exemption would be used and for what. A number of other critics, including several from PhillyThrive including Alexa Ross and Shawmar Pitts, have also spoken out against the measure.

Others spoke out in favor of the renovation of the course in general, without necessarily addressing the ordinance.

A “revitalized” monument

The 18-hole course stood out for being inclusive when it opened in 1916 and welcomed all players decades before other courses and the PGA allowed people of color to play. The city, under the direction of Parks and Recreation, hopes to restore this luster. Renovations would include a new clubhouse to replace the one that burned down, a multi-level driving range, community and education center and other amenities.

» READ MORE: Shuttered Cobbs Creek Golf Course to get $65 million makeover and community center

Rachel Kemp, a staff member at West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School, said the Cobbs Creek Foundation educational team is already supporting children through tutoring and other programs. She said the foundation had donated holiday baskets.

“For the first time in decades, this historic landmark is being revitalized,” Kemp said, “and it deserves recognition.”

Councilman Jones said he would continue to work with environmental groups and the public, but took issue with how the renovations were characterised.

He said critics were entitled to “freedom of speech, but not of facts”.

“Not a dollar of this city’s government money is going toward restoring this golf course,” Jones said. “That’s over $60 million that we can count on being raised by people who care about the historic nature of the city of Philadelphia’s first integrated golf course.”

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