Fixing damaged greens at Hobbit's Glen Golf Club is Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown's top priority as consideration of the association's fiscal 2004 budget begins tonight.
Golfers have long complained about the quality of the 18-hole course's greens, and a group of golfers banded together recently to pressure the homeowners association to improve the course's management and damaged turf.
"There are problems with the greens," said Brown, explaining that the course has three holes that are in "marginal" condition and three others in "poor condition."
Concerns like the quality of the Hobbit's Glen course may come up at a prebudget hearing tonight, where residents will have a chance to tell the Columbia Council -- which also acts as the association's board of directors -- what items they would like to see included in next year's capital budget.
Brown said the public hearing -- and those that will follow in January before the board approves the budget in February -- are intended to allow residents to advocate projects or comment on the association's past spending.
"It gives the residents an opportunity to come in and address anything that they may be thinking about before the staff or the council/board has even started any progress on the budget," Brown said.
The 35-year-old Hobbit's Glen course has had greens problems that association golf managers have blamed on an variety of reasons, including age, turf diseases and drought.
The course lost two prestigious PGA Senior Tour events two years ago, and last fall a U.S. Golf Association agronomist called an outbreak of fairy ring -- a turf-killing fungus -- at the course the worst case he had seen.
Problems with the greens and wet weather in May and June contributed to the golf course ending the past fiscal year $413,000 in debt -- $191,000 more than budgeted.
Rob Goldman, the association vice president for sport and fitness, said options for repairing the golf club range from reseeding the greens after fumigation -- which kills all the grass and sanitizes the soil -- to rebuilding the greens from the bottom up. He said his staff is researching the options and will present a strategy to the board next month.
"We've made a commitment to the Columbia Association board that we will have a well-researched, analyzed, thought-out plan to present to them," Goldman said.
Golfer Walter Morgan said Brown's goal to improve the course's conditions is a "laudable priority," but it's not enough. He said the organization also needs to look at accountability of course managers.
"The greens are only symptomatic," he said. "It's a problem of maintenance and management, and those roll up into a bigger problem."
Morgan is an organizer of the Ad Hoc Committee from Hobbit's Glen Golf Club. The group was formed after Robert D. Bellamy, operations manager for sports and fitness facilities division, suspended Marriottsville club member Ben Williams in June after he posted signs in his truck parked outside the club protesting the greens' condition.
Group members met with Brown and Columbia Council Chairman Miles Coffman last month to air their concerns, which included course conditions, weekend hours and handling of fees.
Columbia residents pay $1,947 and nonresidents pay $3,894 for annual memberships. Members are also charged $35 to $42 in greens fees and $13 to rent a cart for each round played.
"We're paying for a premium golf course, yet we're receiving something far less," said Morgan, of Columbia.
Alex Hekimian, president of the Alliance for a Better Columbia, said his citizen watchdog group would object to the association dedicating major money to rebuild the golf course greens, believing that the turf should instead be repaired and maintained.
Hekimian said he would like to see the organization put less emphasis on sports and fitness and focus more on managing the association's 4,700 acres of parks, playgrounds and open spaces.
He said the Alliance for a Better Columbia would "be strenuously objecting" to the association converting any of its 23 outdoor pools or four indoor pools to theme pools, geared toward certain groups likes teens or older adults.
The group is also against turning a pool into a major swimming facility that would include a wave pool, upgraded locker rooms and a "lazy river" for swimmers to float along in inner tubes.
The council is discussing such pool options as part of its strategic planning process, which started last year in an attempt to address Columbia's greatest needs.
To cut costs, Hekimian said, the association should turn over its before- and after-school care program to the county. The program's operating expenses were $1.4 million during the past fiscal year.
Hekimian said while preparing the budget, the council needs to guard against approving expensive "frivolous projects."
"They've got to watch their expenses and not spend the enormous dollars that the staff wants them to spend every year," he said.
"The staff tends to make proposals that are over the top and very expensive."
Tonight's prebudget hearing will be held at 7:30 p.m. at the Columbia Association's headquarters, 10221 Wincopin Circle. Residents unable to attend the hearing can e-mail comments to Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown at Maggie.Brown@columbiaassociation.com or write to her at 10221 Wincopin Circle, Columbia, MD 21044.