Longform

How Green Is Too Green?

Page 5 of 6

Mahannah is a little irritable these days when it comes to matters of the environment. He's fed up with the regulatory hoops he's had to jump through to complete the Melreese redesign: The environmental regulations in Dade County are the strictest he's ever had to contend with, he says. (The firm has also built courses around the U.S., as well as in Canada, the Bahamas, Mexico, Taiwan, and is currently building facilities in Costa Rica, Vietnam, and Bogota.) The specific measure that rankles him is a rule that dictates how the course can dispose of its stormwater. DERM requires that the first inch of rainwater runoff -- which contains most of the pollutants -- be collected before the remainder is allowed to drain into on-site lakes. It's a standard requirement for all local developments but is particularly important on golf courses.

All courses designed or redesigned in Dade since 1980 have been bound by the regulation. In fact, environmental regulations in general make it much more difficult to build or alter golf courses these days. For example, the county-owned Crandon Park Golf Course was carved out of a mangrove swamp in 1972. Construction of that course would never be permitted today, if only because mangroves are now legislatively protected.

But while the regulation may infuriate designers, it has a limited effect on the county's existing courses: Environmental regulators can't arbitrarily force old courses to modernize. According to DERM engineer Elie Mehu, regulators can force a golf course to revamp its drainage system and design only if they can prove conclusively that the current system is contaminating the environment. To date, no one has conducted a comprehensive biological or engineering survey of Dade's antiquated courses to determine whether they are in violation of environmental laws.

To comply with the stormwater management rules for the Melreese redesign, the Mahannahs designed for Melreese a system of so-called exfiltration trenches that hold the first inch of water and allow it to drain through the soil, theoretically filtering out the impurities. In addition, they created berms around the lakes and along the bank of the Tamiami Canal, which borders the north edge of the course, to divert runoff away from the water bodies and toward the drains.

While he has gone along with the county, Mahannah isn't convinced any of the extra engineering efforts were worth it. "I don't have a biology background, but the science is a little tenuous," he insists. "I haven't seen any studies." By his reckoning, the city and county should have been happy with whatever his firm gave them. The previous incarnation of Melreese was "a dump," he grumbles: The ponds were practically dead, trash was buried in the ground. "When we dug down we found baby dolls, metal, people's shoes," he snaps. "Anything I do is a plus!"

What Mahannah is most upset about is that DERM's stringent regulations restricted his father's creative expression, robbing him of the option to "blend" fairways into the water hazards and create a smoother look. Furthermore, the money he shelled out for the drainage system -- $100,000 -- could have been used for aesthetic touches such as landscaping and bulkheading around the lakes. "I don't want any tree controlling our design," he says. "Golf before the environment, that's what my dad would say. We'll be sitting on our principles starving."

The three other Dade courses that have been redesigned under the county's stormwater restrictions are the La Gorce Country Club, the Golf Club of Miami, and Deering Bay. One is a success, the other two failures.

Instead of employing a system of exfiltration trenches for the La Gorce redesign, Jack Nicklaus and his Golden Bear designers created retention areas on the perimeter of the course. The theory holds that the shallow marshy depressions would fill with water during big rainfalls; the first inch of water would drain into the turf and soil, which would filter out the pollutants as the water percolated into the aquifer; water beyond that first polluted inch would flow through pipes into the course's lakes.

Good theory, bad execution. After Nicklaus reworked the course, neighbors peppered the country club with phone calls and letters complaining that the retention ponds stank, water was overflowing into the back yards that bordered the course, and mosquitoes and reptiles were multiplying (including, according to a representative from a neighborhood homeowners' association, one particularly venomous breed of toad that is "causing small household animals to die").

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Kirk Semple