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Golf Course Permitting: Everything You Want To Know

Golf Course Permitting: Everything You Want to Know

Land entitlements are an essential consideration to address early in the golf course permitting process. They encompass all of the necessary approvals and permits required. These make any development project a reality, and golf courses are no exception. While some permits and regulations are recognizable on a national level, many are specific to state or local jurisdictions. For those not experienced in it, the process can be cumbersome and unpredictable.


Most people will be familiar with zoning, which outlines specific uses permitted in a given county or city. Developers must either comply with these requirements or petition to rezone the land or obtain a variance. Rezoning involves a public process that often includes political and emotional pushback from residents worried about potential negative impacts. Planners typically choose undeveloped areas and open land for golf courses, which can lead to significant resistance. Developers must address concerns such as environmental impact, increased traffic and noise before advancing a project.

Environmental Impact

A critical area of consideration is the effect that a planned development will have on the environment. Developers, including those planning golf courses, must prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS). An EIS outlines various potentials, such as the impact on wildlife habitat, threatened or endangered species, flooding, traffic and others. It must also detail ways to reduce or mitigate these impacts.

Waters of the United States

Water hazards are an inherent design element of golf courses. Ensuring plans meet both federal and state requirements necessitates a great deal of approval and permitting. Chief among these requirements are the Waters of the United States as defined in the Clean Water Act, which aims to protect the quality of surface waters and wetlands. Changing definitions of what waters the act protects have occurred over time. As a result, incorporating any natural water into golf course design may require approval from the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, or state authorities.

Other Environmental Approvals and Permits

In addition to those related to protecting natural waterways, permits will also be required for the expected surface or groundwater withdrawal needs of the course (think: stream buffers). Special site plans as well as tree clearing, replanting and burning permits are typical. The question of where to replant trees on a golf course, where you need a lot of open space, is one that civil engineers like those at Contineo Group help to answer. Sediment and erosion control will need to be addressed as well. 

Irrigation Related Permits

Irrigation systems are a necessary part of golf course construction. The array of permits required for this aspect of the project exemplifies the complexity of the golf course approval process. In addition to the environmental considerations mentioned above, the likely permits needed for installing or even renovating an irrigation system include the following.

  • State and Federal Irrigation Well Permits
  • State and Federal surface water extraction permits for irrigation use
  • State and Federal Golf Course Environmental Operational Permits
  • Permit for the disturbance of a pond or waterway that water is drawn from
  • Permit for pipe going under or over a stream or creek
  • Building permit for a pump house
  • Permit for the pump house if it’s in a floodplain
  • Electrical permit
  • Plumbing permit
  • Permit to cross public or private roads with pipe
  • State environmental operational permits

The Role of the Civil Engineer

It should be apparent by now that the process of planning and building a golf course involves a lot more than designing a beautiful layout with challenging holes. There are a wide range of hazards that can delay or even lead to the cancellation of a project. This is where the experience of a civil engineer comes into play.

Civil engineering plays an essential role during the permitting process by formalizing and addressing the requirements needed to make the architect’s conceptualized design a reality. Working closely with the entire range of stakeholders enables them to understand the expectations for the course design. Experience, training and staying constantly up-to-date on entitlement requirements enable them to efficiently and comprehensively manage the approval process.

As an expert in such areas as methods of water use, erosion control and environmental impact mitigation, the civil engineer will provide critical testimony at zoning board and city council hearings. They will address the concerns of officials and the public in support of the vision of the client and architect. Their expertise will also be valuable in meetings with regulatory agency field personnel as well as the team of consultants involved in the planning process. A successful approval process depends upon the ability of the civil engineers to work with the golf course architect, planning officials, environmental consultants, attorneys and regulatory agencies.

A Cautionary Tale

Perhaps no story better illustrates the complexity of planning a golf course and the absolute necessity of receiving all of the necessary approvals than the tragedy of Trinitas.

Mike and Michelle Nemee dreamed of building a world-class golf course on an expansive piece of farmland in Calaveras County in California. As a young entrepreneur, Mike designed and launched Trinitas. He and Michelle did much of the work developing the course for years and were largely finished by 2007.  

Unfortunately, although they had some assurances that permits were possible, the Nemees completed much of the work without proper permitting or approved environmental impact studies. A local environmental group, a couple of neighbors and new supervisors with a negative view of converting farmland to golf courses brought the neglected entitlements to the forefront.

The result was the refusal by supervisors to grant the necessary permits. The dream and $9 million of investment ended in a bankruptcy sale. A special idea that could have revitalized an impoverished county was doomed by the failure to properly complete the environmental assessment and permitting process.

Make Permitting an Early Part of the Planning Process

Acquiring the necessary permits and approvals for a golf course can be a confusing, cumbersome and perilous process. There is little doubt that experts can not only take the burden off of the client, but can help to assure that the requirements are fully understood and the potential risk of approval failure is minimized.   

Our experience in identifying and addressing entitlement issues has helped clients such as Bergin Golf Designs and Rees Jones, Inc. develop the realistic schedules and budgets needed for a successful project. A perfect example of a project that we have been deeply involved in is McLemore, named one of the top 100 public access courses by Golf Digest. For more information on planning strategies for the permitting process, get in touch! We’d love to talk about your next project.

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