New links drawing interest, criticism Golfers like plans, but fear high fees at 2 Balto. Co. courses

November 01, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Months before it opens, northern Baltimore County's newest golf course is attracting interested golfers -- and criticism.

"On weekends last summer, it was like a park," Superintendent Drew Scully, says, describing the cars full of people who dropped by to see how construction was coming along at Greystone in White Hall. The course is due to open by June.

But eager as the county's 70,000-plus golfers are to try the course's carpetlike grass and gorgeous vistas -- and an 18-hole Diamond Ridge expansion under way in Woodlawn -- they fear that the greens fees will be too pricey.

"We'd all like to play [Greystone]. But if it costs $45 with a cart, we'll stick by playing up in Pennsylvania," Dennis Claassen of Overlea says about himself and his 32-member golfing club.

Warren Lakein, who plays on the Diamond Ridge course, wants the courses run for recreation, not as a business. At Diamond Ridge, Longview in Cockeysville and Rocky Point on the Back River Neck peninsula, most golfers "are average guys with average jobs," who can't afford to pay high fees, he said.

They're expressing the dilemma of the '90s.

Governments are caught between pressures to keep taxes low and to provide more services. And in Baltimore County, where revenues are growing too slowly to give county employees regular cost-of-living raises, the idea of subsidizing golf courses with taxes is history, politicians say.

By turning the courses over to the financially and legally independent Baltimore County Revenue Authority last year, County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger saw a way to get new courses without costing the county treasury.

The revenue authority can sell bonds to pay for course construction -- in this case a $13.9 million debt that must be recouped from golfers. The idea is to make each course, old or new, self-supporting and to generate extra cash for maintenance and expansions.

"I won't ask nongolfers to subsidize golf," Ruppersberger says.

The money being spent on Greystone and Diamond Ridge II -- the county's first new courses in over 20 years -- equals the cost of several school additions, he adds, a trade he could not make in good conscience.

The authority's board is to set fees for Greystone at a meeting Nov. 21.

Jack Milani, a Gwynn Oak tavern owner whose Woodlawn recreation council tournament moved to Carroll County, complains that under the revenue authority, fees rose nearly $1,200 for his group this year.

And county councilmen are hearing about it.

Perry Hall Democrat Vincent J. Gardina, in a view echoed by several other councilmen, says the authority is running the courses "a little too much like a business."

Adds Catonsville's Stephen G. Sam Moxley, "I don't expect them to give away the barn, but any business in operation realizes that you also have to do some charity work."

But the revenue authority's golf director, Robert R. Staab says, "We can't lose money." The new arrangement, he adds, will give golfers more courses, and will allow the county to rebuild three older courses that have been overwhelmed by heavy play.

"Our courses were heading toward a disaster," he says.

Standard adult weekday fees at county courses are now $15 without a cart, and $17 on weekends and holidays. Carts cost $20, and hold two people.

Revenue authority officials hope golfers will stop complaining after seeing what is being done.

Greystone and Diamond Ridge II were designed, Staab says, to be more challenging than the county's older courses. That, combined with Greystone's remote location near Pennsylvania and that area's colder weather, should mean one-third fewer rounds than normal played there -- and thus higher fees, Staab says.

Diamond Ridge II's fees will be set separately and may be lower.

Interest on the bonds sold to finance the courses is costing the authority $850,000 a year, and there are expenses for staff salaries and equipment -- all before the first round is played, says George E. Hale, director of the revenue authority. In 2000, the interest goes up to $1.1 million, and to $1.3 million three years later.

Staab says Greystone has special plush "bent" grass, more and larger tees for golfers of varying skills, better greens, seven ponds and 84 sand traps.

"The thing this course has that no other course has is the vistas," he says, gazing out over the hilly, partially wooded course. "You can look 20 miles into the valley."

Officials hope to attract some county golfers who now drive to Pennsylvania and pay $20-$25 to play, as well as golfers from other counties who want a challenge and don't mind paying a bit more.

Jim Ostovitz, a member of the private Turf Valley club in Ellicott City, is one of those. "I don't mind spending the money if it's a nice course and you don't spend the whole day," he says, referring to long waits sometimes at Diamond Ridge, where he also plays.

At Diamond Ridge II, earthmovers are still moving mounds of dirt, while special stone mixtures are being installed under greens for better drainage and longer life. With luck, Superintendent Gary Crone says, grass will be planted before winter in some of the rough areas, and everything else will be planted come spring.

The course will likely open late next year.

Pub Date: 11/01/96

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