Ruth T. Griggs (R-Occoquan), and a coalition of local environmental activists and Lake Ridge residents turned up the heat on the Prince William Park Authority last week over plans to convert 3.2 wooded acres of Lake Ridge Park into a driving range.
Gathered at the mouth of an Eagle Scout trail that runs through the proposed site, Griggs and representatives from the Prince William Conservation Alliance, Lake Ridge Homeowners Association and Citizens for Trees and Trails spoke out Thursday afternoon.
Griggs said that she believes the community is generally opposed to the driving range, which would be funded by an organization that introduces golf to children, and that citizens are very concerned that they are not being heard by the Park Authority.
During a heated back-and-forth between Griggs and Lake Ridge Park regulars Don Stewart, 71, and Aaron Martin, 71, Griggs also said she would tie herself to a tree if it is the "will of the community" to prevent the Park Authority from destroying trees at the site.
"It's all about balance. It's so everyone can use this park," Griggs said. "All we're asking for here is some of this and some of that. Twenty-seven acres of this park are already dedicated to golf."
Legally, the Park Authority could roll in the bulldozers and build the driving range at any time. But Park Authority Executive Director Peggy Thompson said her department has no immediate plans to do so.
"When the citizens began voicing their concerns, we said, 'Let's see if there's an alternative that meets everyone's needs,' " Thompson said.
Brant Wickham, the Park Authority Board's Occoquan representative, said the Park Authority and Griggs's offices have each received numerous e-mails and calls for and against the proposed driving range. With that in mind, Wickham said it was clear that more discussion needed to take place.
A year ago, after holding a public hearing, the Park Authority Board approved the original plan unanimously, Wickham said. The Park Authority received a $100,000 grant from the First Tee program in December 2001 to build the driving range at the site. The Florida-based national youth organization was founded by five major golf organizations: PGA of America, LPGA, the United States Golf Association, Augusta National Golf Club and the PGA Tour. In addition to learning about golf, children learn about values, goal-setting and overcoming obstacles, program officials have said.
Tracy Hannigan, who runs First Tee program at the park, applied for the grant with the hope of expanding the program. Hannigan said that 79 children participated last summer and that 110 names were on a waiting list.
A groundbreaking ceremony took place last May ; plans called for the driving range to be up and running by this summer.
Almost a year later, the Park Authority has scaled back the original plan from 4.5 acres to 3.2 acres and is proposing two alternatives. The first option is to create a smaller, netted area, similar to that at a batting cage, at the park's current open play area. This would require minimal clearing, Wickham said. The second option would be to add six hitting stalls to the current four. There, children could practice hitting balls into a net.
The scaled-back driving range would be 230 yards long with poles and netting on three sides. Fifteen hitting stalls would sit at one end and about 125 yards of the Scout trail would be relocated, said Beth Robertson, spokeswoman for the Park Authority.
Thompson said that the Park Authority is open to new suggestions from the community, as well.
Marilyn Shultz, who heads up Citizens for Trees and Trails, a group formed to oppose the driving range, and other local residents laid out four options last week. Those include keeping the status quo; contacting another golf course; replacing three existing holes on Lake Ridge Park's nine-hole course with the driving range; and working with schools to determine interest in the First Tee program and identifying other possible sites.
Thompson said that $16,000 of the $100,000 grant has been spent on engineering and planning for the driving range at Lake Ridge Park.
If the majority of the community is opposed to the driving range, First Tee communications director Amy Caruso said, then the funding could be put toward the cost of operations or running the day-to-day program at Lake Ridge Park. She said First Tee would not take back the grant.
One of those opposed is Randy Miskanic, 37, who said he bought his home, which sits next to the Lake Ridge Park on Troika Court, in part because of its close proximity to the acres of trees.
Miskanic said that he and his neighbors never received word of last year's public meetings and that, if the driving range is put in, he will consider moving out of the county.
"This would be a hasty departure," said Miskanic, who has lived in Prince William for less than two years. "I chose Prince William County because you have the opportunity to have some trees, not just wall-to-wall town homes."
Shultz argued that the Park Authority hasn't done any type of environmental impact study to examine if the driving range would pollute the nearby Occoquan reservoir.
Robertson said the Park Authority has done "minimal study" on environmental impacts. She said the Park Authority has followed standard procedure in notifying the public throughout the process.
For Earl Cunard of the Lake Ridge Occoquan Coles Civic Association, it all comes down to the trees.
"We're really against any proposal that destroys another bit of trees," he said. " . . . When you stop and think about it this proposal is based on the interest of maybe 60 people."
Sandy McElhaney, 38, said she believes that the positive impact of an expanded First Tee program on children would far outweigh the environmental damage caused by cutting down the trees.
McElhaney, a Lake Ridge resident, said she watched her two sons, 9-year-old Ian and 5-year-old Logan, blossom in the program last summer.
"We'd tried several other organized sports and hadn't had success," she said. "It was just amazing watching [Ian] gain these athletic and life skills. This is real stuff."