Philadelphia Council exempts Cobbs Creek Golf Course from environmental law

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

The vote came after one speaker with a ukulele sang a parody of Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi” known better by its refrain: “Put up a parking lot.”

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

The song was a bit of levity in a Council hearing otherwise tense at times as opponents spoke out against the proposal.

At issue was an ordinance introduced by Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. that would create a carve out, known as an overlay zoning district, that would exempt the nonprofit making $65 million in renovations to the course from the city’s steep slope requirements. The rules are intended to prevent erosion by limiting what can be done to trees, vegetation, and the land on a slope.

Those opposing the ordinance primarily objected to the exemption of the entire 340-acre property.

The Cobbs Creek Foundation, the nonprofit overseeing the renovation of the historic, city-owned course, has said the exemption was necessary to restore the course to its original layout and to repair existing wetlands and create others to alleviate chronic flooding, which was one of the factors that resulted in the course’s shutdown in 2020.

Though the renovations enjoy much public support, they have ranked others—especially after the foundation razed 100 acres of mature trees about a year ago. Those forces have since coalesced as a watchdog on the project.

» READ MORE: Clear-cutting woods for Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek Golf Course project angers local group and birders

Concerns about ‘free rein’

After pushback 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 permanently erected on a slope and also give neighbors some say over high fencing.

“We welcome the amendments,” Lawrence Szmulowicz, a volunteer with Cobbs Creek Environmental Justice, told the Council before the vote.

However, Szmulowicz, who lives in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood, objected, saying the reviews still exempt the entire property, giving the foundation “free rein to cut down trees on any steep slope within the 350-acre premises.”

And he said the time limit “has no practical value” because he expects the foundation to cut down “all the trees that it wants long before the exemption ends in July 2024.”

Szmulowicz said the foundation has not provided the public detailed plans about where the steep slope exemption would be used and for what. A number of other detractors, including several from Philly Thrive, including Alexa Ross and Shawmar Pitts, also spoke out against the measure.

Others spoke in favor of the renewal of the course in general, while not necessarily addressing the ordinance.

A ‘revitalized’ landmark

The 18-hole course was remarkable for its inclusiveness 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 that luster. Renovations would include a new clubhouse to replace one that burned down, a multitiered driving range, a community and education center, and other amenities.

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

Rachel Kemp, a staffer at West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School, said the Cobbs Creek Foundation’s educational team has already been supporting children through tutoring and other programs. She said the foundation has donated holiday baskets.

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

Councilmember Jones said he would continue to work with environmental groups and the public but took issue about how the renovations have been characterized.

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

“Not one dollar of government money from this city is going into the restoration of that golf course,” Jones said. “That’s $60 million-plus we can count raised by people who care about the historic nature of the first integrated golf course in the city of Philadelphia.”

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