Zoning overlay for Cobbs Creek Golf Course passes despite community concerns

Opponents worry the bill could lead to more tree loss and flooding. “Please listen to us, man,” one activist pleaded.

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A sock filled with wood chips along the creek at the Cobbs Creek Golf Course is said to help prevent erosion.

File photo: A sock filled with wood chips along the creek at the Cobbs Creek Golf Course is said to help prevent erosion. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia City Council unanimously passed a controversial bill Thursday that exempts the renovation of the city-owned Cobbs Creek Golf Course from rules meant to prevent erosion.

Residents and advocates opposed the zoning overlay out of fear it could lead to additional tree loss and exacerbate flooding downstream.

“Trust the fact that I will not stop talking to environmental groups,” said bill sponsor Councilmember Curtis Jones, Jr., before calling for a vote.

The zoning overlay, as originally proposed, would have fully excused the Cobbs Creek Golf Course property from the city’s restrictions around site-clearing on steep slopes, typically meant to prevent erosion and fast-moving runoff, or preserve aesthetics.

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Jones amended the bill several times before it passed Thursday. The first change lowered the maximum building height in the proposed overlay, which in addition to the steep slope exemption allows for taller netting, fences, and buildings. A second change put an end date on the steep slope exemption. A final amendment last week prevents permanent structures from being built on steep slopes and adds requirements around environmental monitoring and engagement.

“We welcome the amendments,” said Lawrence Szmulowicz, a resident of the Cobbs Creek neighborhood and member of the activist group Cobbs Creek Environmental Justice, during Thursday’s public comment period. “They are a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the amendments do not resolve the core problem with the bill.”

The West Conshohocken-based Cobbs Creek Foundation is leasing the course from the city and investing over $65 million to renovate the defunct, historically significant property.

The project will include a new driving range, short course, 18-hole championship course able to host PGA Tour events, restaurant, and education center — with community programming. The Cobbs Creek Foundation also plans to restore the creeks that run through the property and create dozens of acres of wetlands, to fix chronic flooding at the site.

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But last spring, residents were outraged to find hundreds of trees cut down on the property.The Cobbs Creek Foundation has since promised to plant 1,500 new trees, shrubs, and other plants on the site, plus fund the planting of hundreds of trees offsite through TreePhilly. But critics argue newly planted trees are not as good as old ones.

Among the loudest voices against the steep slope exemption at earlier meetings were residents of the Eastwick neighborhood, located downstream from the golf course along the Cobbs Creek. Residents worried the project could exacerbate the already devastating flooding there.

A contractor for the Cobbs Creek Foundation and a representative of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection told the Planning Commission late last month that the project is not likely to make downstream flooding worse.

The Planning Commission voted to approve an earlier version of the bill, which acted as a recommendation to City Council.

Representatives of local schools where the Cobbs Creek Foundation is contributing programming and of a construction company working with the foundation testified Thursday in support of the golf course renovation in general, primarily for the opportunities they said it promises to give local kids and businesses.

“To have a public golf course in our neighborhood is a good thing,” said Blane Stoddart of construction project management company BFW Group.

Jones did not directly address opponents’ environmental concerns, but pointed to the Cobbs Creek Foundation’s financial investment in the property and its promises of career development programming for local young people.

“You have to weigh the good with the bad, and the good far exceeds the bad,” he said.

Residents and advocates representing groups including the Delaware Riverkeeper Network repeated their pleas for council to vote down the bill.

“Please listen to us, man,” said Shawmar Pitts, co-managing director of the activist organization Philly Thrive.

Szmulowicz, of Cobbs Creek Environmental Justice, said the Cobbs Creek Foundation should have gone through the zoning variance process and met with the local RCOs.

“We still do not know basic details about the developer’s plans,” he said. “How many trees do they plan to cut down? Do they include any heritage trees? How will they prevent erosion, landslides and sediment pollution in our waterways, after they cut down the trees whose roots literally hold the earth in place? We do not have these answers because the community has not had the opportunity to pose those questions.”

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