BONSALL — Golfers got in a final round of play at the San Luis Rey Downs Golf Course on its last day of operations on Wednesday.
Tom Hunter of Fallbrook took to the links with a group of golfing buddies.
Hunter has played the course for 17 years. His friend Richard Hack, also of Fallbrook, has played The Downs for 23 years.
The 18-hole championship golf course designed by William F. Bell is closing to allow environmental mitigation of the property to begin. Aproximatly185 acres of the 240-acre site will be restored as wetland habitat.
The proposed wetland and species mitigation bank, known as the Moosa Creek Mitigation Bank, is one year into the application and review process.
Golfers and residents have opposed the land use change of the beloved historic site. Jon Frandell, member of the San Luis Rey Downs Men’s Club and president of Save The Downs, has been leading the charge.
“They are destroying the heart of the community,” Frandell said. “There are no benefits economically, culturally or recreationally.
“It’s not in the community’s interest.”
Frandell said he and others do not want the historic golf course to become a fenced off habitat area.
Recreational golfers, golf clubs and college and high school golf teams use the links. Local schools and college track teams use the course trails.
“The location is a jewel,” Frandell said.
Save The Downs has taken steady political and legal action to stop the mitigation project.
The group proposed forming a bond district to buy the golf course in partnership with the county from the owners, the Vessels family.
A fundraiser was held last week that netted $22,000 to help fund further legal battles.
“We’re not giving up, we’re not going away,” Frandell said.
The San Luis Rey Downs Golf Course has been in the process of closing since January. The onsite hotel and restaurant have already shut down.
Closing the golf course will be the final step in shutting the door to the public.
At the same time the wetland mitigation review process is moving forward.
Kevin Knowles, president of Conservation Land Group, said the mitigation project is expected to be approved sometime next year.
Conservation Land Group is working in a consultation capacity to the property owner to move the wetland mitigation proposal through the approval process.
Knowles said community opposition was unexpected.
“The level of opposition stems from the community and neighborhoods around the site,” Knowles said. “Other mitigation banks do not have as many neighbors.”
To accommodate neighbors a walking trail around the edge of the property is being considered. Any public access will need to be balanced with regulatory requirements.
“A lot of folks already think it’s a great habitat,” Knowles said. “If you consider a golf course and turf to be a habitat, yes that’s going away. The long-term impact will be significantly greater.
“The goal is to create a much better habitat and much wider range of species.”
Knowles said long-term benefits include preservation of open space, less demand on groundwater, better overall water quality, and flood control.
Improvements to the stream channel and floodplain terrace will allow water to meander through the site, reduce flow rates during storms, and alleviate flooding.
The site also has the environmental benefit of being located within a suite of conservation properties, which provides wildlife a long stretch of protected land.
“From a habitat prospective it’s fantastic,” Knowles said. “It’s a great site for this particular use.”
Monetary benefits are realized through the sale of earned state mitigation points, which can be sold to developers who have mitigation requirements to fulfill for building projects.
The site has a high point value because it is a wetland and endangered species will be protected.
Knowles said there are upfront risks and years of work before a profit will be realized.
This story has been updated since its original posting.