University of Maryland would be merely going for the green if it gets rid of golf course

A developer is eyeing the University of Maryland golf course — and not with the idea of making up part of a foursome. The university is batting its lashes and entertaining the idea of turning the course into something other than all that pesky, wasted green space.

Why? Both sides will claim the development will ease traffic in College Park, especially on perpetually gridlocked Route 1. But the real answer, as it often is, will be money.

A mixed-use development that includes a direct route between Interstate 95 and campus would cost an estimated $100 million. Maryland can’t sell the land, but it can offer a long-term lease to a potential developer, in this case Greenberg Gibbons.

And of course, Maryland needs money. But the flat-broke athletic department won’t get that money; the course is administered by the school’s Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs. So the money would go directly to the university.

Some might wonder what the loss of one golf course really means in the current economic climate. There are plenty of courses in this area, although not all of them are open to the public. Maryland’s course is a mixed bag: It has members, but it is also open to the public.

Students are shocked after university President Dr. Wallace D. Loh announced Monday that the Terrapins will join the Big Ten in 2014. After nearly 60 years, Maryland will leave the Atlantic Coast Conference , a conference it helped establish. (Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)

So does the University of Maryland need a golf course? After all, not every university has its own — except that in the fabulous Big Ten, every member school except Northwestern does have its own. Ohio State has two. Michigan’s athletic department just received a $100 million gift that will help pay for $18 million in renovations to its golf facilities.

Why should that matter? Because Maryland rushed into the arms of the B1G, and its schools are the ones Maryland wants to compete against — academically, athletically, aesthetically. Getting rid of its course would seem like a step backward in that attempt.

Maryland President Wallace D. Loh, who engineered the school’s move to the B1G with a breathtaking lack of transparency, has met with Brian Gibbons, chief executive of Greenberg Gibbons (and a Maryland graduate). Gibbons has also personally briefed state and local officials and members of the Board of Regents. This seems like more than an “unsolicited proposal,” as Loh called it in a July 8 letter to Gibbons. Loh cautioned that such a proposal would face public hearings, but if the deal already has been struck behind the scenes, such meetings would be mostly for show.

The apparently nonexistent proposal is being taken seriously by the Maryland Golf Course Coalition, which is fighting the idea. The golf course isn’t without problems. It closed for a year for renovations and is trying to rebuild its membership to about 250 members. The course makes money, so it’s not a drain on university finances — but it still has to service the debt incurred by the renovation.

If we want the discussion to center around money, there is this: The course hosts roughly 70 fundraising and charity events a year; many raise money for university programs and scholarships. Some of the benefactors of those events are non-revenue sports at Maryland, the ones that haven’t been eliminated already. Considering the athletic department’s precarious financial health, perhaps that particular revenue stream should remain open.

But beyond economics, the course is one of only a few true, open green spaces on Maryland’s campus. Lose those 150 acres, and Maryland is just another concrete jungle of higher learning. Lose that green space, and it will never come back. Joni Mitchell never sang, “They unpaved paradise and tore down a parking lot.”

Since 2003, the Maryland course has been designated a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary by Audubon International. Just 14 courses in the state of Maryland have the Audubon seal of approval, which is based on factors such as water conservation, reduction of chemical use and wildlife habitation.

So, yes, traffic around the College Park campus is a nightmare, but the answer is not to eliminate the golf course. A new traffic spur might help congestion, but the development, which would include businesses and residences, might add to it.

Only one thing is certain: Land is not a renewable commodity. Mark Twain is credited with saying: “Buy land. They’re not making it anymore.” If he didn’t say it, he should have because it’s true.

For more by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.

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