Beating plowshares into golf clubs

Advocates continue to seek county-owned course on farmland

March 25, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A half-mile off Frederick Road, amid brown farm fields and grassy pastures where dairy cows once roamed, it is so quiet that only the birds overhead disrupt the silence of early spring.

Soon, Howard County farmer Mike Mullinix, 43, of Dayton will be planting crops again on part of the 340-acre West Friendship parcel where county officials had hoped giant earthmovers might be working instead to create a second county-owned golf course. His family has farmed in Howard County for more than 100 years, he said.

"It's fair land, not great land" for the wheat and other crops his family raises on the 2,000 acres it owns and rents across the area, Mullinix said. But with Howard's farmland disappearing at a rate of about 1,000 acres a year, the county's land is still valuable for farmers.

"There are not so many areas around, and it's close to our center of operations," Mullinix said of the 138 county-owned acres in West Friendship that he pays $6,128 a year to use.

Last week, one of his employees was spreading fertilizer on the fields from a large white truck.

Brian D. Paulsen, a county natural resources employee who lives on the property and helps maintain it as a caretaker, says he loves being away from paved roads and other people.

"It's peaceful and quiet. You don't have any neighbors to deal with," and other than seasonal farming, the only disruption is a barely perceptible rush-hour hum from Interstate 70 during the winter, Paulsen said.

The golf course plans aren't dead, though, just on hiatus until after the next election, when advocates for a second course are hoping for a County Council more attuned to their cause.

"A golf course will go in there. It's not a matter of `if,' but a matter of `when,'" said Donald J. Dunn, president of the county's Golf Advisory Commission and one of the project's strongest backers.

Gary J. Arthur, the county recreation director, isn't quite as certain, but he too wants the course built. "I am hopeful. We couldn't convince the council to go for it last time out," he said.

Meanwhile, golf course advocates and opponents agree that leasing the land to farmer Mullinix is a good thing, mainly for land management purposes and to help control Canadian thistle, a non-native plant that, if ignored, will spread and eliminate native species. Mullinix is required to spray for thistle as part of his lease, Arthur said. Except for Paulson's county-owned home, all structures on the property - houses and farm buildings - are unoccupied.

County Executive James N. Robey likes the golf course idea too, he said recently. "It's still on my back burner."

Expensive, exclusive

The Robey administration and advocates for a course at West Friendship say that private golf courses nearby are too expensive and therefore exclusive, but Robey's talks with the private-course owners about lowering fees fizzled after the council refused to budge on the $8.8 million golf course.

The county financed construction of the first publicly owned course - Timbers of Troy in Elkridge - by the sale of bonds, which are to be paid off over time from the course proceeds. That way, no taxpayers' money has been used to build or operate the course.

Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican who represents the West Friendship area, feels strongly about the issue, he said, because the government should not compete with owners of private businesses.

"I would always be opposed to building a golf course there," he said, adding that he thinks the project is dead "for now." Kittleman would rather see the land used as a demonstration farm for educating Howard's children, and perhaps for more ball fields.

But owners of private courses, who object to what they call unfair competition from the county, believe that time is on their side because more private courses are opening in Central Maryland, while the demand for golf might be declining.

"I'm not sure what the county plans to do," said Thomas J. Healy, owner of Waverly Woods golf course near the county's West Friendship land.

Two views of shortfall

Healy said Timbers of Troy didn't make enough money to pay its bond interest last fiscal year, and might be unable to attract enough golfers to keep up on payments. That should be a deterrent to building another course, he said.

"The reason [golf] rounds are down is the market is down. Golf isn't growing as fast as the number of courses," Healy said.

Arthur said Timbers of Troy was $24,000 short - an amount made up from a reserve cash fund from busier years. The fund also is being used to expand the clubhouse, and about $500,000 will remain when that is done, Arthur said. He blamed the shortage on 31 rainy days in the spring and summer, he said, including Easter, Memorial Day and July 4 weekends, and 17 inches of rain in September.

"If we had the 31 days, we would have surpassed our record," he said. Timbers is behind projections for the current fiscal year, too, Arthur said. But he is hopeful that better times are coming.

"We will break even if we get the weather," he said.

Dunn also believes that the public interest requires a second publicly owned course, and it is not golf economics that is stopping construction, he said.

"It's a political thing, not an economic thing," Dunn said.

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