Help or hindrance?

Sean Dudley
By Lee Penrose

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has come a long way since its formal inception in the USA over 35 years ago. But the EIA process is still often viewed by golf developers and architects as an expensive hurdle in the planning procedure rather than a worthwhile method of anticipating and dealing with the affects of a proposed development.

In reality, experience has proven that early consultation with both the local planning authority and suitably qualified consultants will lead to a better designed facility that not only fulfils environmental objectives but also sits well within the landscape while providing a visually interesting and strategically challenging round.

We live in an age where minimalist golf design is king. More architects than ever before are looking to work with the landscape and enhance sites rather than fighting against nature to create garish and out of place environments. So we must understand the landscape into which the facility is to be introduced before we can even consider enhancing it by building a golf course.

The EIA regulations are valid throughout the world in different guises. However, one thing that they all share is a requirement to recognise and protect the primary environmental assets of a site from an early stage. These often include particularly interesting landforms, habitats, species or archaeological resources, that is, those features which give the land its very character and probably generated interest from golf in the first instance.

Success or failure in gaining permission to construct a golf course, and ultimately the quality of that course, depends primarily on the ability of the architect to use assets identified in the EIA to advantage.

The choice of consultant to undertake the EIA is one of the most significant decisions any developer can make.

Consultants are often selected on price and ability to deliver a product in the short term, rather than competency. The result is often a poor quality EIA. While there are no legal requirements governing the qualifications or experience necessary of EIA practitioners, it is fundamental that an appropriate level of competency is provided. The coordinator of the EIA must remain completely independent and show no bias in favour, or against, the development if the planning authority is to accept the process.

Many developers are of the misconception that detailed ecological habitat or vegetation assessments are sufficient to submit to the planning authority, in an attempt to shortcut the EIA process. Such exercises do provide detailed scoping information but do not compensate for a comprehensive, scientifically based assessment process.

Importantly it is the EIA coordinator whom will put into place mitigation measures aimed at protecting and even enhancing the ecological and environmental features identified. A thorough understanding of the game of golf and liaison with the architect throughout the entire process will allow those mitigation measures to be incorporated into the design without detriment. Offering alternatives to the design at an early stage is not a statutory part of the EIA process however is seen as an important step in securing permission.

It is an unfortunate truth, that the course design is often established well in advance of any discussion with environmental consultants.

Ecological issues are often viewed as the most significant 'annoyance', with developments seemingly set back for years as newts, bats, flowers or other species are counted, recorded or relocated. Similarly, the very nature of protected wildlife sites makes them appealing to golf developers who long for natural surroundings in which to site courses. But designing golf facilities on pristine habitat is fraught with problems.

Engaging a suitable consultant to work with the architect through the whole process from inception to construction will allow simple methods to be suggested and implemented that are beneficial to both golf and wildlife. Practical solutions such as the creation of rough grassland carries to facilitate species dispersal or use of appropriate vegetation planting can often prove to be the difference.

If undertaken correctly then the EIA will not only assist in the development of a golf facility that is sympathetic to its surroundings but also in the running of the site. It will provide a baseline on which future management regimes can be based.

When making their final decision, planning authorities will certainly look for evidence of ongoing sustainable management practices in addition to the more obvious concerns such as hole layout.

Whether the EIA process is a costly obstacle on the road to gaining (or losing) planning permission or a beneficial part of the design process is purely down to the foresight of the developer and his or her advisers. Embracing the EIA and engaging the correct environmental consultants at the earliest opportunity is financially prudent when compared with retrospective alterations to design and will undoubtedly save time if lengthy survey processes can begin from the outset.