Pro golfer Ben Crenshaw added his support Tuesday to a bill that would remove Lions Municipal Golf Course from the University of Texas’ control to prevent the potential development of the historic West Austin site.
Several Republican senators, however, expressed skepticism about the plan during the morning meeting of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development.
Senate Bill 882 by Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, would require UT to transfer the 141-acre golf course to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department by the end of 2017. The parks agency would be required to continue the existing lease to the City of Austin and continue operating the site as a public golf course.
The transfer would preserve a historically significant public space — the first desegregated golf course in the Southern United States — a 1951 event that earned the site a place on the National Register of Historic Places, Estes said.
“Value is not simply a monetary calculation. History has value,” Estes said.
Crenshaw said the worth of the golf course, as a historic site and a green space in a rapidly growing city, “is incalculable.”
“People all over the country want to save this course,” Crenshaw said. “I’m a product of the University of Texas. I grew up in the shadow of the Tower,” he said. “But I am going to put up whatever reputation I have for saving this course.”
But Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said SB 822 would confiscate land owned by UT while the school was negotiating with the City of Austin on increased lease payments — money that would further the school’s educational purpose.
“Are we circumventing a viable negotiation here to maintain it as a golf course if we go in and seize it? Aren’t we then taking opportunities away from the University of Texas to realize the actual lease value of the property?” Seliger asked.
“Senator, you’ve used the word ‘seize’ several times. I think that’s a rather strong word,” Estes said.
“‘Seize’ and ‘confiscate’ are the only two terms I can really come up with,” Seliger replied.
Estes: “‘Transfer’ is a good one.”
Seliger: “‘Seize’ and ‘confiscate’ are more accurate.”
Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, said taking the land could set a bad precedent that would deter future land donations.
“I find it hard to believe that the highest and best use for this property is a golf course,” Huffines said. “I feel like this is the university’s property and the Legislature should stay out of the way.”
UT President Gregory L. Fenves told the committee that the university has begun negotiating with Austin on the future of the entire 300-acre tract along the Colorado River — including the golf course — that was donated to the school in 1910.
One option is continuing the 141-acre site as a golf course, but with higher lease payments that better reflect the site’s fair market value, which some estimate at almost $6 million annually, Fenves said. Austin’s roughly $490,000-a-year lease on the golf course expires in 2019.
Another option is developing much of the golf site but preserving the clubhouse and other buildings as a museum or learning center “to signify the desegregation that took place,” he said.
“The university is committed to recognizing, honoring and celebrating the history of Austin and the path towards integration and inclusion,” Fenves said. “This is a very important landmark we are committed to preserving.”
The committee hearing on SB 822 was interrupted by the 10 a.m. start of the Senate session. The hearing will resume 30 minutes after the Senate adjourns later today.