Friday, July 17, 2009

Residents demand county keep golf on Sligo Creek site - Gazette

Planning Board officials say it would violate legal agreement with Revenue Authority

by Jason Tomassini | Staff Writer | Friday, July 17, 2009

In a raucous, contentious hearing before the Montgomery County Planning Board Thursday, residents demanded that the Parks Department keep golf at Sligo Creek Golf Course in Silver Spring after it is shut down Oct. 1, but board members said it is not in their legal authority to keep golf on the land.

About 25 of the 37 people who testified before the board said they wanted the facility to remain a golf course, and each was met with loud applause and chants of "listen to the people" from the standing-room-only crowd of about 80.

"I would gladly lie down in front of a bulldozer before I see one hill leveled or one tree or one blade of grass cut down on behalf of this mysterious need to close this golf course," Karen Goozner, a nearby resident, said in a spirited testimony that was interrupted several times by cheers.

Parks Department officials presented four future uses for the 65-acre site off of Sligo Creek Parkway, including a nature center, a sports complex, a recreation park and a golf course. In April, officials began a master plan study to determine the reuse of the course after the County Council ruled the Montgomery County Revenue Authority could hand back operations of the course to Park and Planning on Oct. 1 because it is failing financially.

Thursday's hearing was held so the board could approve the schedule and procedure for the master plan study. But it evolved into a contentious back-and-forth between residents and board members on why the board could not approve golf at Sligo Creek amidst passionate testimony favoring it.

"The course will return to us on Oct. 1 and we are not in the position, either under contract or with funds, to operate it as a course from that date," said Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson, who repeatedly had to reprimand the crowd after numerous angry outbursts. "We do need to make plans… as to how best to handle the situation that I think neither this board, nor most of the folks here this evening, wished to have happen.

"But we have to face reality."

Park and Planning leased operation of four courses, including Sligo Creek, to the Revenue Authority in 2006. The Revenue Authority already owned five courses. There is a clause in that lease, which the County Council approved, that prohibits Sligo Creek from operating as a golf course if the Revenue Authority feels it will compete with its other courses.

"We have no authority to negotiate the decision and we have no funding," said board Vice Chairman John Robinson, who was serving his final day on the board. "Those issues are for the Revenue Authority and the [County] Council."

The board decided that for now, Parks Department staff should not "expend its time and effort" to consider a golf course for the land because for that to happen, the Revenue Authority would have to amend its lease with Park and Planning.

"At the moment, staff is trying very hard to present other options because if it does not become a reality that the contract is opened up, we have to be ready to roll with something," said Mary Bradford, director of Parks for the county.

Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said Friday there is "room to negotiate," but the council has not had official contact with the Revenue Authority.

Ervin suggested other possibilities, including partnering with nonprofit vendors to operate the course or subsidizing the course through funds from the Capital Improvements Program and having the Revenue Authority continue to operate the course.

"The community needs to take a step back and not get into a combative stance," Ervin said in a phone interview. "At the end of the day, the community will get what it wants without being combative."

Revenue Authority Director Keith Miller could not be reached for comment Friday.

The board rejected the sports complex alternative because of its effect on the environment, leaving a recreation park and a nature preserve – both of which received support from a few residents – for the parks department to consider.

After Oct. 1, the Park and Planning Commission will handle upkeep of the Sligo Creek course until a new use is determined, costing an estimated $56,000, and the park will be available for passive recreation like jogging, dog walking and nature appreciation. Planners have previously estimated the future use of the course will be determined by spring 2010.

A community meeting is scheduled for Sept. 9 to update residents on the progress of the study.

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