Ben Brown's Golf Course At The Ranch At Laguna Beach

GEO Certified® 05/2017
Laguna Beach,
California, United States
Telephone: 949-499-1919
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Executive summary (English & local language)

The following accounts and observations noted below were a result of a full-day site visit conducted by this verifier on Friday, May 5, 2017. The golf and clubhouse staff who provided a golf car driving tour of the facilities, included the following:
• Kurt Bjorkman, General Manager
• Andy Fechko, Director of Golf
• Ramiro Mendoza, Course Superintendent
• Derek Ostensen, Ecologist, Derek Ostensen & Associates

Ben Brown's At The Ranch is a nine-hole executive golf course that is a recreational institution in Laguna Beach, California. Since 1950, when the course was completed, this quaint executive course has served Orange County golfers as a "best-kept" secret--known as a gem of a course nestled in the protected nature preserve of beautiful Aliso Canyon.

Since present ownership acquired the property, the company has significantly upgraded the hospitality and clubhouse facilities, incorporating obvious attention to sustainable practices and details. Exteriors and interiors were crafted with sophisticated taste levels (and budgets), yet in understated and refined presentations. The practical minimalism combines with a palpable engagement with local conservation groups as well as with the overall community of Laguna Beach. The course and facility enjoy a rich history that is embraced by local residents as well as travelers who make The Ranch a regular stop.

In terms of its embracing sustainable practices, Ben Brown's At The Ranch is "all in" with making certain that the golf course became a nature-friendly recreation venue. Such measures as virtually eliminating maintenance-related organic waste, consciously reducing course inputs, removing invasive non-native flora that prevented thriving of native habitat, and completing a water reclamation project, has demonstrated the owner’s commitment to sustainability by every means possible.

Nature

Located directly adjacent to a state wilderness preserve, the subject property enjoys all the sensory benefits of a nature park. The fact that a golf course lies amongst a part of such undisturbed acreage made it incumbent upon the course and facility owner to ensure that the improvements caused little or no disruption to the habitat of indigenous flora and fauna. If one merely tours the property, it could easily be concluded that the Ben Brown’s golf course is actually part of the preserve, as the course and property are literally surrounded by vegetated canyon walls and various semi-native mature trees. My observations confirm that preservation of the site’s sensitive landscapes and ecosystems is the owner’s highest priority.

With respect to landscape heritage conservation, Ben Brown’s consults with the most pertinent and influential organizations and agencies, including California Coastal Commission, Calif. Department of Fish and Wildlife, Orange County Watersheds, Ocean Institute, Laguna Canyon Foundation, South Coast Water District, and Orange County Parks, among others.

Present and very helpful at the site for my visit was a key consultant, Derek Ostensen, who conducted a Landscape and Invasive Species Assessment for the owner. Derek also performed the Turf Removal and Sustainability Survey and the Golf Course Design Enhancements Plan. During the site visit, he was very informative in describing and pointing out most of the conservation projects that have taken place on the course.

As designated by the various governing authorities, Ben Brown’s landscape profile includes Historic Landscapes and Parklands, Areas of Scenic Beauty, Coastal Zone Protections, Open Space Protection, and Eligible Scenic Highway land along Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy. 1). My aforementioned comments bear out the legitimacy of these important designations.

Predominant turfgrasses for most playing surfaces, other than greens, are various strains of hybrid Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon x C. transvaalensis), Perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne), and Kikuyu grass (Pennisetum clandestinum). Over a long test of time, these turfgrass varieties possess characteristics that are salt air and drought tolerant, as well as resistant to common turfgrass pathogens.

Putting surfaces comprise a dated mixture of primarily coastal annual Bluegrass (Poa Annua) and Creeping Bentgrass (Agrostis stolonifera / palustris). Putting greens on nearly all golf courses located on or near the Pacific coast, sooner or later, succumb to the invasion of Poa annua. If managed properly, however, this cool-season, semi-native turfgrass provides a hearty and consistent putting surface.

The course’s seasonal aerating and overseeding provides the necessary variations of color and texture, which coincide with desirable playability year-round.

The small greens and tee boxes require walking mowers, which provide both appropriate heights of cut and aesthetically pleasing mow strips. These were observed as being appropriate with respect to course contours. Fairways and roughs were observed such that larger gang mowers create corresponding larger mow strips. Mowing directions are rotated on a regularly scheduled basis to provide attractive cross patterns as well as to improve turf cut quality.

To help preserve the course’s natural appearance, few directional or informational signage is apparent—and few are necessary. Minimal golf-centric amenities, other than hole yardage signs, tee markers, and ground-under-repair notices, were observed. Few man-made surfaces are present: golf car paths are sporadic and primarily adjacent to tee boxes and greens. Maintenance facilities are barely noticeable and, to the extent feasible, are naturally screened.

Conservation and long-term preservation of native specimen trees are included in a program prescribed by a professional arborist.

Amenity grass on the course was nearly non-existent. Some of the tree-lined holes had pine straw around the bases in lieu of unhealthy turf. Other non-playing areas were surfaced with other natural non-turf material that was both functional and aesthetically attractive.

Probably the most impressive work involving habitat increasing and enhancement was undertaken in a one-mile stretch of Aliso Creek, which winds it way throughout the golf course. Invasive, non-native plant species, which crowded out native species of flora and fauna, was removed in favor of the planting of native species. Due to the extremely fast-growing nature of the non-native species (up to 3-4 inches per day!), this is a continual maintenance task.

Many examples of the natural connection of internal and external habitat patches were both noticeable and point out by the hosts. In addition, thousands of native plants coupled with removal of hundreds of non-native invasive trees created a substantially improved native habitat corridor that appeared to always be in place.

In addition to the continual removal and replacement of the invasive, rapidly growing non-native plants in Aliso Creek, extensive plantings of native, diverse wildflowers are evident at most adjacent areas around the course and buildings. Management of scrub vegetation is conducted via the expert direction and oversight of consulting ecologists. Several conservation and enhancement activities to improve biodiversity were pointed out on and around the course.

Water

Throughout the property, water conservation efforts are evident at Ben Brown’s. Attractive, thoughtful, and professionally designed landscapes are all about the clubhouse and lodging facilities. The golf course features an abundance of native flora at its borders and between holes where one playing the course can easily recognize the commitment to simplicity and the blending with healthy irrigated turf.

Just as obvious to an observer in a typically high water usage facility like a kitchen, water consumption is taken very seriously. Guest rooms include informative, yet subtle reminders for patrons to be conscious of their water usage.

As one would expect, the vast majority (94%) of water usage at Ben Brown’s occurs on the golf course. As a huge credit to the overall property, for the past three years the course has been irrigated strictly with reclaimed water. Relatively small amounts of public potable water are drawn in the clubhouse, maintenance facilities, and other areas.

Notwithstanding the fact that the course only irrigates with reclaimed water, measures to reduce irrigation volume are still undertaken vis-a-vis turfgrass selection, soil decompaction, thatch management, soil moisture monitoring, and continued analysis of irrigation frequency.

Additional measures such as seasonal use of wetting agents, turf substitution in non-play areas, and system pressure optimization, further contribute to their water-reducing efforts.

In the hotel and clubhouse facilities, installation of low-flow urinals and toilets, use of water-efficient appliances, flow-reducing shower fixtures, regular leak repair, and signage promoting awareness all do their part in ownership’s dedicated efforts to reduce overall water usage.

Energy

My site visit confirmed that Ben Brown’s pays great attention to energy conservation and reduction. The owner invested in current technology to ensure a reduced footprint with mechanical and electrical systems that power facilities at the property. Lighting throughout the property comprises LED fixtures and lamps, creating a more desirous serene environment as well as achieving the required energy reduction and savings.

Consumption levels per the submissions appear reasonable and consistent for this size operation. In light of investments made in energy-reducing measures and technology, ownership can be expected to continuously monitor and look for additional means of reducing energy consumption.

Energy diversification comprises use of LPG for patio heaters and fire pits, while electric vehicles are deployed for service carts and golf cars.

Examples of the stated activities, and associated investment, for energy and fuel reduction were highlighted during the site visit, including:
- Investment in low-energy heating and air conditioning
- Optimizing thermostat controls
- Low-energy lighting systems
- Motion sensor lighting
- Energy Star appliances
- Computerized timers and thermostats for pool and spa heating
- Staff training on importance of maintaining energy and fuel savings

Supply Chain

All indications during my site visit were that management procures products and services from local companies and those that have sustainability practices in place. In keeping with ownership’s vision of operating the property with the highest levels of sustainability, management pays particular attention to detail with respect to purchasing products, to the extent possible, that conform with recycling and waste prevention. One noteworthy example: Each guestroom includes a self-operating coffee maker that requires use of disposable coffee pods. Management expended extra effort to find pods that were biodegradable and thus kept out of landfill.

With environmentally friendly products readily available in California, Ben Brown’s demonstrated steadfast practicing of measures to:
- Avoid unnecessary waste
- Use local products
- Select certified organic and/or sustainable products
- Use recycled or recyclable products
- Purchase products with minimal packaging
- Purchase products from accredited (ISO) suppliers

Usage of various N-P-K formulas has been reasonable and consistent over the reporting period. Because of the potential for runoff into Aliso Creek, organic fertilizers are applied when feasible. Moreover, it was clear during my site visit and discussions with the superintendent and general manager that the staff is vigilant about keeping all inputs at a minimum.

Of the three pesticide categories, only fungicide, which is strictly organic and limited to when absolutely necessary, is applied to fairways, greens, and tees. To management’s credit, herbicide and insecticide usage is non-existent, further demonstrating the course’s commitment to minimizing inputs and strict sustainable practices. Optimization of pesticide usage occurs via the use of hand sprayers vs. machine-operated boom spraying.

Waste is almost non-existent at this facility. Virtually nothing is dumped in landfill or incinerated, all organic waste is either composted and reused for plant and turf health, and nearly all packaging is recycled or biodegradable. Many examples of this sustainable waste management were pointed out during the site visit.

Pollution Control

Again, Ben Brown's performs exemplary work with the way it protects the property from all forms of pollution risk. Its close association with the California Coastal Commission, Laguna Canyon Foundation, and the South Coast Water District, provides every conceivable reporting process, which facilitates pollution control and management.

During the site visit, management reiterated its processes and frequency for monitoring water quality as specified in the OnCourse submittal.

Clubhouse and facility waste water discharges to municipal sewer mains, while golf course irrigation and rain waters discharge to stormwater systems. To prevent discharge into the protected Aliso Creek or into stormwater systems, all equipment is washed in designated native areas that “filter” such water before entering groundwater.

The property’s secure storage areas were identified, both in clubhouse and golf course areas. As listed in the submittal, any hazardous material is regarded and managed with the highest priority of care via secured storage and/or registered uplift.

During the tour of clubhouse facilities, areas designated to guard against various pollution or contaminants were pointed out. Clubhouse areas are well-equipped with proper storage and mixing facilities that meet local fire department regulations. Storage rooms are appropriately secure; floors in storage and mixing areas are impervious; and above-ground tanks are professionally installed and secured on concrete pads.

Golf course areas are well-equipped with proper storage and mixing facilities that meet local fire department regulations. Storage rooms are appropriately secure; floors in storage and mixing areas are impervious; and above-ground tanks are professionally installed and secured on concrete pads.

All spill contingency plans and training are regularly performed by department heads in both operational areas.

Community

To characterize the level of community relations in which Ben Brown’s is engaged, it could be said that the property is literally a community golf course and hospitality property. Ownership treats its relationship with the Laguna Beach and south Orange County communities very seriously in that it wants to be recognized as a dependable contributor to community advancement and coastline protection.

When employment opportunities are available, efforts are made to hire local residents via various job postings. Because of the preponderance of similar service facilities in the immediate and surrounding areas, talented and trainable staffing is accomplished on a regular basis.

In light of the degree of importance placed on sustainable operations in all property departments, initial and regular professional training is critical to Ben Brown’s achieving is performance goals.

Including the owner, property department heads and representatives from the local community form the committee that exchange ideas and develop measures to ensure progress with sustainability.

While several details of community relations and involvement are listed in the OnCourse submittal, I was fortunate to experience one of them during the afternoon of my site visit. After completing the site tour, I decided to play the golf course and joined a threesome who were members of the local high school team. Ben Brown’s offers the use of the course to the Laguna Beach High School golf team as their home course.

With its “Resort Activities” program, management provides multiple options for visitors and guests to interact with the many nature-related amenities found on and adjacent to the golf course. Touring the course and surrounding grounds, one can easily see that golf serves to compliment the greater natural environs, providing outdoors enthusiasts with abundant recreational activities that intersect with the native environment.

Documentation Reviewed

Conclusion

In so many ways as enumerated herein, Ben Brown’s at The Ranch demonstrates not only a clear commitment to sustainability, but, even more so, an obvious desire to be viewed a leader in sustainable golf course and hospitality operations. Since taking over property ownership, the owner has invested substantial sums and resources to create a golf and health-oriented destination that embodies eco-friendliness, sustainable practices, and a cohabitation with its native surroundings and habitat.

As I toured the property with the executive staff, each of them exuded a profound sense of pride in what they, as a team, have achieved. Their collective exuberance was in no way confused as arrogant or This impression was not tempered in any way by what could have been construed as a display of arrogance or conceit. Rather, their accomplishments are to be congratulated and publicized as a validation of hard work, dedication, and sincerity.

In conclusion, I am most pleased to enthusiastically recommend Ben Brown’s at The Ranch for GEO Certification.

Certification Highlights

From this independent standpoint, club ownership and management have exhibited proficiencies in golf course and hotel sustainability practices, and highlights are too numerous to list in summary. As the true underlying “highlight” of their certification efforts, however, and what stands out in the most profound way is the universal buy-in by all executive staff and employees.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment that Ben Brown’s owner has achieved is his ability to create an inner “community” amongst the staff, where the sustainability vision is not only carried out with the utmost enthusiasm and dedication but which actually evolved in a living “organism.” An outsider is taken by the support mechanism to which each staff member contributes—collaboration is the major element of the organization so that goal achievement is shared on a truly systemic basis.