Greens or pools is the debate at council hearing

Repairs at Hobbit's Glen are essential to some

`We're open to any good ideas'

Affordable swim facilities are priority for others

Columbia

September 15, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

A debate over Columbia's capital budget priorities turned into something resembling class warfare last week, with populist advocates arguing that money should be spent making pools more affordable rather than rebuilding an elite golf course.

Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown had said her top priority for next year's capital budget is fixing the damaged greens at Hobbit's Glen Golf Club, where golfers have long complained about the quality of the course.

At a Columbia Council prebudget hearing Thursday night, Dave Leonard, chairman of the Hobbit's Glen/Fairway Hills Golf Committee, said 5,000 fewer rounds of golf have been played on the course so far this year compared with the same period the previous year. Declining use will cause the golf course to lose $165,000 to $200,000 this year, he predicted.

(New annual course memberships, including greens fees, cost residents $1,947 and nonresidents $3,894. Residents pay $1,740 for renewals, and nonresidents pay $2,595.)

"Golfers are leaving Hobbit's Glen to go elsewhere because they just can't tolerate the condition of the greens," Leonard said. "The overall tenor of Hobbit's Glen is poor."

But Don Wheeler, a member of the Ad Hoc Committee from Hobbit's Glen Golf Club, told the council that the Columbia Association should not spend money rebuilding the greens. He said the source of the course's problems is inadequate management, an issue that needs to be addressed for the course to be successful.

Sherman Howell, a Columbia resident who is a vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, agreed that the association shouldn't put money toward the golf course. He said it would be embarrassing to the county - one of the richest in the nation - if the association focused on repairing golf course greens instead of making pools affordable.

"We must not have a county where we do not have free swimming pools," he said, punctuating his point by slamming his hand on the lecture in a packed meeting room - a rare sight for a council session.

Persistent problems

The Hobbit's Glen course has had persistent problems with its greens in recent years, with association golf managers attributing the damage to a number of factors, among them poor construction, turf diseases, drought and the age of the 35-year-old course. The golf course ended the past fiscal year $413,000 in debt - $191,000 more than budgeted - in part because of problems with the greens and wet weather in May and June.

Ben Clements, chairman of the Hobbit's Glen/Fairway Hills Greens Committee, said the committee will recommend to the Columbia Association board of directors that money be approved to rebuild all of the course's greens within one year. Short-term solutions have failed, he said, and if the greens are properly repaired, the only problem the association will have is providing enough tee times at the course.

"There has been a loss of pride in the golf course," Clements said. "That's the saddest thing."

Rob Goldman, the association's vice president for sport and fitness, estimated it could cost $40,000 to $50,000 per green to rebuild the 18 holes and two practice greens.

That money would be better spent reducing the cost of pool use for low-income families, some argued at Thursday night's meeting.

`Precious resources'

New membership pool fees range from $90, for a resident to have limited use of the pools, to $265 for a family to use all 23 outdoor pools, which are open between May and September. People who aren't Columbia residents pay fees ranging from $235 to $595.

The prices are too high for Ruth Cargo, who told the council that the association should charge a minimal fee so children could afford to swim by simply washing a car for $1.

"Our pools are one of our most precious resources," said Cargo, an Oakland Mills resident. "It's something that makes Columbia very special, and we need to handle them in a different way so all community members have access to them."

Hickory Ridge resident Jean Lewis said the pool fees exclude low-income families, creating a situation in which the community sorts out children by income. She worries that children from poor families who never learn to swim won't feel proficient in other tasks at school, and they need the "inalienable right to swim, and do one thing well."

"This has become a paying town, and I don't think it works anymore," she said. "We're bringing up kids who have not had the chance to be in a social situation, to be on a team."

The association has a number of ways for income-qualified residents to earn pool memberships. Individuals or families who meet Section 8 guidelines are eligible for a 75 percent discount on pool fees. About 1,700 people bought memberships under that program this year, Goldman said.

Also, people can earn memberships by performing volunteer work at association facilities, and the association has formed partnerships with some schools where students can earn memberships by excelling academically.

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