Robey backs a western golf course

Executive's support follows study done by Calif. consultant

`I feel the time is right'

Strong opposition promised by owners of private courses

November 02, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive James N. Robey wants to build a publicly owned golf course in the western county, despite strong opposition from private course owners.

Robey announced his support for the idea yesterday, based on recommendations of a San Francisco consultant's study released in July and support from Gary J. Arthur, director of the Department of Recreation and Parks.

"I feel the time is right to bring this project forward," Robey, who is in North Carolina at a police conference, said in a prepared statement.

He and Arthur said the market is there for the county's second publicly owned course, although 10 public courses have opened in the region in the past four years, including six in Howard, Baltimore and Frederick counties. Timbers of Troy, the first Howard-owned course, opened near Elkridge two years ago.

"In our opinion, Maryland and this area is undersup- plied," Arthur said, adding that a new public course aimed at moderate-income golfers wouldn't hurt upscale, privately owned clubs.

He and Donald J. Dunn, president of the county's Golf Advisory Commission, said they are happy that Robey is going ahead with the West Friendship project.

"If we'd done this 20 years ago, we wouldn't have the problem of high fees now," Dunn said. "Twenty years from now, the people of this county will be very happy."

He said 25,000 county golfers welcome the prospect of a new, moderately priced course.

The proposed 18-hole course would be built on about 220 acres of county-owned parkland across from the county fairgrounds on Route 144 (Frederick Road) and west of Route 32.

The land is part of the undeveloped 321-acre West Friendship Park.

Like Timbers, the new course would be financed by the sale of revenue bonds, Robey said, and revenues would pay the debt service -- meaning no money would come from general county taxes. For Timbers, the county borrowed $10.5 million. It used more than $7 million for construction and the rest to cover start-up operating costs.

Opponents argue that a new course would hurt every course's revenues and could force the county to dip into the general fund budget to pay interest costs. County officials said that won't happen.

Dunn said the former farmland "is very conducive to building a golf course" because it is not too heavily wooded and the rolling land would be easy to adapt without too much moving of earth.

Although the topography might be good for golf, the political landscape is anything but.

Owners of at least three private western county golf courses are vowing a fight to the end to prevent what they say is a public intrusion on their turf.

"We're the ones who pay taxes -- an enormous amount of taxes that his [Robey's] courses will not pay. So, in effect, they're unfairly competing," said Thomas C. Beach, owner of Willow Springs Golf Course, which is less than a mile from the county land.

"We're very upset about the public golf course," said Louis Mangione, vice president of Mangione Family Enterprises, which owns Turf Valley Country Club. "What's next? Is the county going to build an Italian restaurant?"

Robey said he doesn't believe the county would be competing with private courses because enough business exists for everyone. "I want to provide an opportunity for beginner golfers, disabled golfers and golfers on a fixed income."

Dunn argued that to ignore a public need is tantamount to subsidizing private businesses.

Beach said the argument is far from settled.

"We're not done yet," he said. "We're going to go after the County Council, who gets the ultimate vote on it. What happens when none of these courses can carry their expenses?"

County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a Republican who represents western Howard County, said he would not take a position until he sees a financial analysis of the project, but "unless I can be convinced that it can meet a need not already met by existing courses, I'll probably be opposed to it," he said.

Even Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, isn't convinced that Robey is right.

Gray said he wants to be sure that lower, affordable fees would produce enough revenue to pay off the bonds.

"My concern would be the financial performance -- how it would be funded," he said.

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