During a work session last night on next year's proposed budget, the Columbia Council narrowly approved construction of 18-hole golf course, ending months of intense controversy over the proposal.
The 5-3 vote, with one abstention, was a straw vote and is not binding. Decisions in work sessions on the proposed $30.2 million operating budget and the $10.1 million capital budget are not binding until the council takes a final vote, scheduled for March 1.
After the final vote, the budgets take effect May 1.
The swing votes in last night's straw vote on the $5.2 million project were council member Karen Kuecker and Chairman John Hansen. Ms. Kuecker had earlier backed a proposal to build a nine-hole course, and Mr. Hansen had originally wanted to establish the 204-acre site as a nature conservation area.
The golf course site is in Columbia's villages of Town Center and Wilde Lake.
"I've been persuaded we should build the course because of the economic issues. Interest rates are as low as any of us will see in our lifetimes," Mr. Hansen said.
Ms. Kuecker said, "I've struggled with this decision for a long, long time. I know there will be people who won't like my decision, but I can live with an 18-hole course."
Joining Mr. Hansen and Ms. Kuecker in backing the golf course were council members Charles Acquard, Evelyn Richardson and Susan Waller.
David Berson, appointed as a nonvoting representative to the council for Columbia's newest village, River Hill, said that if he had a vote, he would have supported the project.
Voting against the proposal were council members Norma Rose, Gail Bailey and Fran Wishnick. Council member Charles Ahalt abstained, although in the past he has said he opposed the 18-hole proposal.
Ms. Wishnick, a longtime opponent of the 18-hole project, made a final defense of her proposal for a nine-hole course, projected to cost about $3.2 million to build.
"I have never thought the environmental issues were a major concern here," she said. "I still have strong concerns about the level of debt we will incur. I think a much smaller course is preferred because of the lower level of debt."
Robert Krawczak, vice president of administrative services for the Columbia Association, told the council that if the money for the project was borrowed today in the bond market, the association could expect an interest rate of between 8 percent and 8.4 percent.
He said the council could decide to proceed with construction using money borrowed on a credit line instead of going directly to the bond market. But he said that any delay in issuing bonds may result in missing out on the lowest rate.
The council will decide later how it wants to proceed with financing the project, which is expected to generate 50,000 rounds of golf annually. The course is expected to open by mid-1996 and generate a profit by its fourth year of operation.
In approving the golf course, the council said it would name a committee to track the project's progress and would ensure that representatives from the community of Running Brook are on the panel. Many Running Brook homes abut the course site. Some of those residents have vehemently opposed the project.
Chairman Hansen said he wants signs posted on the golf course warning players against venturing into wetland areas and onto residential properties. Violators should be removed from the fairways and barred from further play, he said.
The council did not restrict the course for use only by Columbians, an issue that had been debated at hearings on the project.
The council did not take up any other capital projects during the work session, deciding to leave those to its next and last work session on Feb. 18.