© 2024 WEMU
Serving Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, MI
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Issues of the Environment: Meeting the challenges of maintaining Ann Arbor's municipal golf courses in eco-friendly ways

Ann Arbor Parks Manager Josh Landefeld.
City of Ann Arbor
Ann Arbor Parks Manager Josh Landefeld.


  • Ann Arbor’s parks and recreation opportunities are one of the key reasons that people choose to live there, and why the city consistently tops lists as one of the best places to live in the United States. The City of Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation maintains a whopping 159 parks and 15 park facilities. The list includes neighborhood pocket parks, larger community parks, golf courses and huge, undeveloped nature areas that are open to explore. The parks feature expansive trial networks; pickleball, tennis, and basketball courts; frisbee golf and river cascades, public pools, ice rinks, and numerous playgrounds. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.reinhartrealtors.com/blog/2019/06/summer-guide-ann-arbors-city-parks/)

  • Ann Arbor is such an attractive place to live that it is facing an affordability crisis that has some CIty Council members questioning the value of Ann Arbor’s 2 public golf courses. According to golflink.com, “Ann Arbor’s 2 municipal golf courses are open to the public and adjacent to large heavily used parks. Josh Landefeld, City of Ann Arbor Parks Manager, points out that “the City’s golf courses are part of a much larger Ann Arbor Parks system designed to provide varying opportunities for our residents and community.” He says, “My focus as manager is to look at the entire system and how park facilities and components play into that system.” 
  • Golf courses traditionally conjure up negative environmental connotations because they require relatively large plots of land compared to other recreational opportunities, and some feel they cater to the elite. A couple decades ago, polluting pesticides and fertilizers, non-native grasses and plants that were a sink for wildlife, gas-powered maintenance tools and carts were standard. However, in response to negative public perceptions, today’s courses often offer significant wildlife habitat and benefits, as well as water quality and stormwater benefits. Gas-powered tools and carts are being phased out too. (For now, AACC is allowing gas carts because the infrastructure to transition to electric is costly.)

  • Leslie Park Golf Course has won several significant awards and honors – including Best Municipal Golf Course in the State of Michigan and a 4 ½ star rating from Golf Digest. The course has been used as an example to other municipalities about how environmentally sustainable golf courses can be with proper planning. It is notable for its environmental features, including numerous stormwater features, beautiful native plantings that feature milkweed, and limited use of pesticides and/fertilizers. Leslie Park is honored to be one of 12 Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary golf courses in the state of Michigan and a partner with Monarchs in the Rough, as an important habitat for Monarch butterflies. Green Fees cover the costs of this course. 

  • Huron Hills Golf Course is a beautiful course adjacent to Gallup Park. Huron Hills is perfect for beginners, juniors, seniors and families, while still providing a challenge for the experienced golfer. Established in 1922, this historic course is noted for dramatic elevation changes and views of the Huron River. This course doesn’t break even from green fees, but it is very affordable for beginners and those who could not otherwise afford golf. 
  • Josh also mentioned that golf was one of the first activities to open up and allow connections following the COVID-19 pandemic, and after some years of decline, it gained popularity again. Discussion about where affordable housing have some council members eyeing golf course land, citing density and proximity to other city amenities as aligning with sustainability goals. But, if Ann Arbor’s golf properties were built up, golfers would be forced to commute to farther-flung courses and the environmental value of the present properties would be lost. 


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair. Welcome to this week's edition of issues of the environment. An 18-hole golf course requires a great deal of maintenance, and, historically, some of the treatments for the grass itself have been a hazard to the environment, wildlife habitat, and ecosystem. The good news is improvements have been made, and more are on the way. Golf courses also take up a lot of land, and that stirs up some passions as well. Would it be better used to develop affordable housing? That's a question that some are asking around Ann Arbor and a lot of communities around the country. There are a total of 12 golf courses in Ann Arbor. There are five private courses, five public courses and then two municipal courses. We wanted to learn more about the municipally owned courses and the environmental stewardship issues taking place. Our guest is Josh Landefeld, and he is the City of Ann Arbor's parks manager. Thank you so much for making time for us today.

Josh Landefeld: David, thank you for having me.

David Fair: I don't need to tell you, Josh. The park system in Ann Arbor is rather vast, and parts of that system are the Huron Hills and Leslie Park golf courses. Are there differences in the manner in which you have to run and oversee the golf courses, as compared to the rest of your park responsibilities?

Josh Landefeld: One of the great things about the municipal courses being part of the park system is that the park system has a long history of being great land stewards to our park facilities. The golf courses are no exceptions. You know, we treat those courses with the same care and concerns that we provide our natural areas, our pools, and our playgrounds to ensure that we continue to be great stewards for our park system, regardless of where they're at. The golf courses create different challenges. But we continue to be creative in how we address those maintenance concerns.

David Fair: And I wanted to address some of those challenges when it comes to owning and maintaining a golf course. I want to touch on first are land in water. Golf courses do take up a lot of space. How many acres does the Ann Arbor municipal courses take up in total?

Josh Landefeld: The Leslie Golf Course, on the north side of town, is about 155 acres. It is part of the largest continuous park in Ann Arbor, totaling about 375 acres on the north side of town. Huron Hills is slightly smaller than that, probably about 125 acres in total.

David Fair: So, I'm sure you've heard some of the community scuttlebutt that perhaps these municipally owned golf courses might serve the city better if the land were set aside for affordable housing development. Now, I don't want to needlessly involve you in politics, but I would like your perspective on why the courses are valued as part of the park system in Ann Arbor.

Josh Landefeld: So, from a park standpoint, our job is to provide recreational opportunities to our residents and to the community as a whole. Having the two golf courses really provide differing options for individuals looking to golf, as well as recreate around those areas. Leslie Golf Course is a championship-style course that brings in a large number of individuals from both local, regional and nationally, as we held an American Junior Golf Association tournament last year that brought in almost 100 junior golfers from all over the country and all over the world. Huron Hills Golf Course tends to cater towards beginners or local individuals--so two very different courses providing opportunities for a wide variety of individuals in the city and beyond the golf. The golf courses offer a variety of mixed use spaces as well. If you ever see drive past Huron Hills during the winter, you see sweaters regularly when there's snow. There's cross-country skiers. There's other dog walkers throughout the year. So, they really provide a space not just for golf, but also for general recreation use when possible.

David Fair: WEMU's Issues of the Environment conversation with Josh Landefeld continues. Josh is the City of Ann Arbor's parks manager. Now, taking care of these courses is no easy task. Those fairways and greens don't manicure themselves, and keeping things green requires a great deal of water. Do you even know how much water is used to maintain these courses on a daily or annual basis?

Josh Landefeld: So, the vast majority of our water is recirculated. So, we have ponds, as well as the river near Huron Hills that we utilize for the vast majority of our irrigation. So, we're not using any water--we're not using that. So, it really creates an opportunity for us to utilize nature's water for irrigation.

David Fair: Is there any concern about runoff, or is it because this water is not part of the municipal city water supply, that you don't have to worry as much about that?

Josh Landefeld: I mean, there's always a concern with it, but we are very conscious of the efforts that we make. And so, we limit the use of water when necessary just as we do with all of our park system. Additionally, with that, when we talk about the ways that we keep the grass green, we continue to find ways to be more ecologically aware with our materials and our substances to ensure that we're good for both the plant and animal life in the area.

David Fair: In keeping grass, it maintains golfing tradition. Would there ever be a time you would consider switching to a synthetic turf at either course?

Josh Landefeld: I don't believe so. I think that part of the golf courses and the advantage of them is having the natural grass. It does create different maintenance. And switching to synthetic doesn't necessarily solve maintenance problems. It just changes them.

David Fair: So, let's talk about some other areas. I mentioned runoff. And, typically, when you have runoff, it's carrying the fertilizers that have been used to maintain the grass. There is also, over the years, been a good deal of pesticide use. And I'm guessing something is used to make sure that golf courses are inhospitable to certain critters. Now, 40 or 50 years ago, we weren't thinking so much about those challenges in terms of the environment. How are you dealing with those at Huron Hills and Leslie Park?

Josh Landefeld: Yeah. So, again, being part of a park system that's been very progressive in regard to land stewardship, our golf courses have taken a proactive look at how we utilize our materials and how we focus to ensure that, again, we're being as ecologically friendly as we can. For the last 15 years, the golf courses have increased the use of our organic-based products in their fertilization and pesticides program. Our golf superintendent does an excellent job of researching and is looking at a new product that has no warning labels on it to support the pesticide needs on there. Again, we utilize it as little as possible. Additionally, with some of our areas outside of the golf course, we work with the Natural Area Preservation Program to do prescribed burns. So, just like in all of our parks, we really try to be park stewards and care for the land as we know this community wants.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with Ann Arbor City Parks Manager Josh Landefeld. He's our guest on this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. Well, Ann Arbor has set a goal of being carbon neutral by the year 2030. The amount of equipment needed to take care of a golf course can be rather significant. And some of it does contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. What progress is being made on the electrification of golf course maintenance?

Josh Landefeld: So, we are regularly transitioning when possible from gas-powered mowers and machines to electric. We have a couple of those being purchased over the last couple of years. And staff are really enjoying that opportunity. Both of our courses were some of the first sites for us to work with the Office of Sustainability and Innovation to add solar panels to ensure that we're electrifying some of our operations at the clubhouse and our maintenance barns and our irrigation. So, we are regularly taking an approach to support A2Zero through our purchases of new vehicles and other opportunities.

David Fair: I'm curious. Obviously, as you have mentioned, there has been a lot of progress made over the decades. And if we talk again a decade from now, how different will environmental stewardship of golf course maintenance look?

Josh Landefeld: You know, I think that's one of the great things about being in a park system is we're always trying to evolve to meet the trends and the needs of the community. I think that there will continue to be opportunities as science and education and information is learned. You know, we'll continue to evolve and adapt. You know, one of the things that we continue to do at our park system is look at environmental programs that benefit not just the golf course, but the community at large. You know, two of the programs that we're proud to be a part of: one of which is the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary program. This is an education and certification program that helps organizations and businesses protect our environment. Leslie Park Golf Course is one of only nine golf courses certified in this program in the state of Michigan. Another program that's been really exciting to see over the last four years is the Monarchs and the Rough program. Both of the golf courses have been active participants in this program, and we have planted more than two acres of pollinator plants at both golf courses to help bring back monarch butterflies from the endangered species list. Again, we were one of the first five in Michigan to participate in this program. So, as more programs come about like this and as we are able to utilize our space to support goals and environmental programs, we will continue to do that. So, what will it look like in ten years? I'm not sure, but I know that will be on the forefront of those conversations.

David Fair: Well, I look forward to having another conversation about just that. Thank you so much for your time today. I appreciate it.

Josh Landefeld: Thank you very much for having me.

David Fair: That is Ann Arbor's city parks manager, Josh Landefeld. For more information on the city's municipally owned golf courses and our conversation today, stop by our website at wemu.org when you get a chance. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support.  Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.

Like 89.1 WEMU on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Related Content
  • Ypsilanti Township is continuing legal action against a local, interstate materials hauling company. Last summer, a massive pile of a black, coal-like substance appeared on the property owned by OKD Transport. Since then, nearby testing has turned up toxic carcinogens. The property owner says independent testing has proven the substance to be non-hazardous. WEMU's David Fair talked with Ypsilanti Township attorney Douglas Winters about the ongoing issues and concerns.
  • There are a great number of positives when people operate and work on urban farms and community gardens: access to fresh and healthy foods, community building and reduced transportation needs in areas known as food deserts. A new study from the University of Michigan discovered some areas where improvement is needed with some urban farms and gardens creating a carbon footprint much greater than conventionally grown produce. WEMU's David Fair checked in with Benjamin Goldstein to learn more about the research and why it caused such an uproar. Goldstein is co-lead author of the study.
  • There has been an intensified effort to invest in Michigan’s infrastructure. Certainly, you’ve noticed all of the road and bridge construction. There is much more work on being done on various kinds of infrastructure. Zach Kolodin is the state's chief infrastructure officer and the director of the Michigan Infrastructure Office. He discussed the ongoing efforts with WEMU's David Fair and Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director, Lisa Wozniak.