After months of pressure from citizens groups, a county supervisor's threat to tie herself to a tree, and a move by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors to block its funding, the Park Authority's proposal to build a driving range on 3.2 wooded acres of Lake Ridge Park is, in essence, dead.
Last week, supervisors approved a $611 million budget that bars the Park Authority from spending any funds on the driving range without board approval, including the nearly $84,000 that remains from a $100,000 grant earmarked for the project. About $16,000 has already been spent on planning and engineering for the range.
"We're out of the woods, so to speak," said Supervisor Ruth T. Griggs (R-Occoquan), a vocal opponent of the plan who recently said she would tie herself to a tree over the matter. "The big thing that's important is that the money is now locked up. They can't do anything to harm the trees or the trail."
Clearing the 3.2 acres of trees would require moving part of a hiking trail at the site. The Park Authority received a $100,000 grant to build the range in December 2001 from the First Tee, a Florida-based national organization that teaches children golf, values, goal-setting and overcoming obstacles.
The Park Authority board unanimously approved the plan a year ago, after a public hearing. The driving range was supposed to be up and running by this summer, but public outcry over removing the trees grew over the last several months. As a result, the Park Authority is considering several alternatives.
Nonetheless, on April 8, supervisors voted to block all funding to the Park Authority if it moved forward with the proposal. Griggs said she made it clear to Brant Wickham, who represents Occoquan on the Park Authority board, that the agency must "take the proposal off the table" in writing before the Park Authority's funding could be reinstated.
Several days later, Park Authority board Chairman Jim Johnson agreed to scrap the plans, in a letter to Board of Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R-At Large).
Johnson wrote that the board "will take action to amend the master plan of Lake Ridge Park to eliminate reference to the driving range."
But it's still unclear when the master plan will be changed.
Johnson said that Park Authority staff members will brief members of the authority board Thursday on a proposed alternative that would allow the First Tee program to expand at Lake Ridge Park by adding six hitting stalls to the four already at the park, which also has a nine-hole course.
Park Authority board members also will hear the latest on talks between staff members and representatives from Old Hickory Golf Club, which is scheduled to open in Woodbridge in the summer, about the possibility of allowing children in the county's First Tee program to practice at the club's driving range.
An additional public hearing must also take place before the board removes the range from the master plan, Johnson wrote.
The Park Authority staff would have to reapply to the First Tee program in order to use the remaining grant money to build the hitting stalls, authority spokeswoman Delain Clark said. No cost estimate has been set for the alternative proposal, which would require clearing about 0.04 of an acre of woods, Clark said.
Park Authority staff members will meet with representatives from Old Hickory for a second time in mid-May to discuss the possible partnership.
Clark said the first meeting, which took place April 10, was positive.
"It's definitely a viable option, but we haven't discussed logistics at this point," she said. "Details would have to be worked out if that's the option we decide to go with, and Old Hickory would obviously have to agree to it."
Representatives from Old Hickory were not available to comment.
Last summer, 79 children participated in the county's First Tee program at Lake Ridge. An additional 110 children were on a waiting list, said Lake Ridge Park manager Tracy Hannigan. Lake Ridge was chosen to host the program in part because it's an ideal course for beginners -- short, with only nine holes.
Kim Hosen, executive director of the Prince William Conservation Alliance, said thatlocal environmentalists, civic association leaders and Lake Ridge residents opposed to the range feel that they've reached a significant milestone.
But Marilyn Shultz, who heads Citizens for Trees & Trails, a group formed specifically to oppose the driving range, remains cautious.
Shultz said she has spent so much time on the effort that on some days it feels like a full-time job.
"For me personally, I will be following the process through to a conclusion," Shultz said. "But as far as the community . . . we're very grateful that it sounds like this has been halted and that the woods and trail will be preserved."
But some aren't so pleased.
Sandy McElhaney's two sons Ian, 9, and Logan, 5, participate in the First Tee program. McElhaney, 38, said she and the boys attended several public hearings to demonstrate their support for the range.
"Everybody in our family is disappointed," she said. "It's unfortunate that this chain of events had to happen this way. . . . Shame on us that it took this long to come to this conclusion if this in fact is going to be the end result."