Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Battle of Sligo Creek Golf Course, Part Two

By the end of 2006, the Montgomery County Revenue Authority (MCRA) had leased four golf courses from Park and Planning to complement its existing system of five others. MCRA’s mission, given to it by the County Council, was to make sure that the four courses stopped losing money. MCRA Executive Director Keith Miller’s idea for doing that was simple: pick the course with the most marketing potential and expand it. But Miller, a Long Island native who had never before lived in Montgomery County, was not familiar with our political culture. And one of our culture’s cardinal rules is that MoCo residents demand input over what happens in our neighborhoods. When we don’t get it, we fight.

Within months of acquiring its new lease, MCRA and a hired consultant designed a plan to construct a $4.7 million expansion to Sligo Creek Golf Course that added a lighted driving range and at least one mini-golf facility. The course’s neighbors in the North Hills of Sligo Creek Civic Association found out about the plan through the newspaper. The community expressed growing skepticism about the project based on its traffic and noise impacts, the stormwater and other environmental consequences of building impervious surfaces near Sligo Creek and the shining of bright lights near neighboring homes. The project also occurred in the context of a new expansion by Holy Cross Hospital and the dangerous conditions at the nearby Georgia Avenue-Forest Glen Road intersection. Soon enough, the neighbors joined forces with activists in Friends of Sligo Creek to ask questions about what MCRA was doing with Sligo. That’s when I got involved.

First, we wanted to know how each of MCRA’s golf courses was doing financially. MCRA told us they did not publish individual golf course financial data, but Council Member Valerie Ervin’s office intervened and obtained it for us. Next, we wanted a traffic study illustrating how the project would impact the nearby roads – especially the infamous Georgia-Forest Glen intersection. When the study was completed in late 2007, it did not include Georgia-Forest Glen at all and calculated that the Colesville-Sligo Creek Parkway intersection would only have two additional car trips per hour during evening rush. But the consultant’s study predicted that Sligo’s revenue would rise from $516,869 in FY 2006 to $2,955,215 in Year Five after the expansion – a nearly six-fold increase. So revenues would multiply by six times with barely any increase in traffic. We didn’t believe that for a second.

In January 2008, MCRA held a public meeting to sell its expansion proposal to the community. More than 200 residents voiced their objections in a room containing several politicians and County Council staffers. We were not merely expressing our discontent with the features of the expansion (although MANY people did so). We also had researched MCRA’s finances and found out that while Sligo lost $100,696 in FY 2007, the golf system as a whole earned $1.565 million in operating income and $623,000 in net income. The real drains on MCRA’s finances were not Sligo, but were Little Bennett Golf Course (which lost $301,821) and the airpark (which lost $303,252). There was simply no need for the expansion project. The lease between Park and Planning and MCRA was working: the golf course system was solvent.

Undaunted by our opposition, MCRA asked the County Council to approve their expansion project. And so we met with the council one by one, starting with the Council Member who was there first: Valerie Ervin. By the spring of 2008, MCRA knew we had them licked and withdrew their capital request. But the conflict was far from over.

MCRA handpicked an advisory committee to recommend what should be done with the course. In the beginning, only three of its eleven members came from the community. When I attempted to attend the first meeting as an observer, MCRA Executive Director Keith Miller told me it was a private meeting and asked me to leave. That was a blatant violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act and Valerie Ervin’s office immediately protested. Eventually, Miller asked me and other residents to join and we spent the summer of 2008 trying to figure out how to make Sligo more profitable. After four months of work, we drafted a report on how to improve the course which can be found on page 46 of this council briefing document.

MCRA never gave our suggestions a chance. Instead, they hired a consultant to write a justification for turning Sligo back to Park and Planning. The County Council agreed to let MCRA walk away from the course last spring, triggering an all-out revolt by neighbors and golfers to save it. Last week, County Executive Ike Leggett asked the council to arrange for a $150,000 taxpayer subsidy to keep the course open for another year while its fate could be revisited. But the clock is ticking as the course is scheduled to close on October 1.

The Battle of Sligo Creek Golf Course has gone on for more than two years. What makes this conflict so unfortunate is that it did not have to happen. And it is awash with misinformation that cries out for the truth. We will take on the three biggest myths about Sligo starting tomorrow.