Residents: Keep golf on Sligo Creek site
Planning Board officials say it would violate legal agreement with Revenue Authority
In a raucous, contentious hearing before the county Planning Board Thursday, residents demanded that the Parks Department keep golf at Sligo Creek Golf Course in Silver Spring after it is shut down Oct. 1, but board members said it is not in their legal authority to keep golf on the land.
About 25 of the 37 people who testified before the board said they wanted Sligo Creek to remain a golf course, and each met with loud applause and chants of "listen to the people" from the standing-room-only crowd of about 80.
"I would gladly lie down in front of a bulldozer before I see one hill leveled or one tree or one blade of grass cut down on behalf of this mysterious need to close this golf course," Karen Goozner, a nearby resident, said in a spirited testimony that was interrupted several times by cheers.
Thursday's hearing was held to review the master plan study for future use of the course after the County Council ruled in April that the Montgomery County Revenue Authority could back out of its lease to operate Sligo Creek because it is failing financially.
But the meeting evolved into a contentious back-and-forth between residents and board members on why the board could not approve golf at Sligo Creek amidst passionate testimony favoring it.
"The course will return to us on Oct. 1 and we are not in the position, either under contract or with funds, to operate it as a course from that date," said Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson, who repeatedly had to reprimand the crowd after numerous angry outbursts.
Park and Planning leased operation of four courses, including Sligo Creek, to the Revenue Authority in 2006. The Revenue Authority already owned five courses. There is a clause in that lease, which the County Council approved, that prohibits Sligo Creek from operating as a golf course if the Revenue Authority feels it will compete with its other courses.
"We have no authority to negotiate the decision and we have no funding," said board Vice Chairman John Robinson, who was serving his final day on the board. "Those issues are for the Revenue Authority and the [County] Council."
Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said Friday there is "room to negotiate," but the council has not had official contact with the Revenue Authority.
To keep the course open, Ervin suggested partnering with nonprofit vendors to operate the course or subsidizing the course through funds from the Capital Improvements Program and having the Revenue Authority continue to operate the course.
"The community needs to take a step back and not get into a combative stance," Ervin said in a phone interview. "At the end of the day, the community will get what it wants without being combative."
Keith Miller, executive director of the Revenue Authority, said Tuesday he had not considered any alternatives to the course closing Oct. 1 and "the intent of the lease was that no taxpayer dollars would be spent to subsidize golf courses."
"We're talking about such a hypothetical situation," he said when asked if the Revenue Authority would consider Ervin's suggestions. "At this point we have not been contacted by the council."
The board decided that for now, Parks Department staff should not "expend its time and effort" to consider a golf course for the land because it would require an amendment to the Revenue Authority's lease.
At the beginning of Thursday's meeting, park officials presented four future uses for the 65-acre site, including a nature center, a sports complex, a recreation park and golf.
The board also rejected the sports complex alternative because of its effect on the environment, leaving a recreation park and a nature preserve – both of which received support from a few residents – for the parks department to consider.
Because Sligo Creek is an inexpensive, nine-hole public course in an area of the county that is deprived of golf, residents said the course's closing would leave a void for women, minorities, seniors and beginners who have passive interest in golf.
"Sligo is not competition' to the county golf system," said Carmen Maymi, an officer of the Sligo Ladies' Golf League, which has played weekly outings for the past 25 years. "It is a needed alternative for those residents whose needs will not be met by the larger, difficult and expensive courses in the system."
Miller said nine of the 27 holes at Northwest Golf Course on Layhill Road are geared toward less serious golfers. And First Tee of Montgomery County, a division of a nationwide program that brings golf to youth and underserved populations, is available at Sligo Creek, Laytonsville and Needwood golf courses.
Miller said First Tee will be initiated at Northwest this fall, in absence of the Sligo Creek program.
Residents also questioned the Revenue Authority's claim that Sligo Creek was in fact a financial detriment to the county golf system, as was ruled by an independent study by the National Golf Foundation. The study said Sligo Creek lost $168,358 in net income last year and projects Sligo Creek to lose more than $200,000 in each of the next five years.
But Mark Suffanti, a founder of www.SaveSligoGolf.com, said much of that is tied to a management fee that all Revenue Authority-operated courses must pay. The $160,000 fee is the same for all nine courses, regardless of size, he said.
Miller said Sligo Creek lost money even when the Parks Department operated the course prior to 2006. He also said the National Golf Foundation study took the management fee out of the equation when determining Sligo Creek's financial stability.
After Oct. 1, the Park and Planning Commission will handle upkeep of the Sligo Creek course until a new use is determined, costing an estimated $56,000. Planners have previously estimated the future use of the course will be determined by next spring.
A community meeting is scheduled for Sept. 9 to update residents on the progress of the reuse study.