Campers practice at the University of Maryland’s golf course, which has been around for 60 years. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

For the second time in five years, the University of Maryland is considering repurposing part of its 18-hole golf course for athletic fields — a plan university leaders say is necessary to advance the institution’s growth but critics view as an attempt to tear apart the only championship-caliber public golf course inside the Capital Beltway.

Maryland’s flagship university wants to take about one-fifth of the 150 acres of rolling greens off Route 193 in College Park to relocate its track-and-field facilities and build five football-size athletic fields and a 600-space parking lot.

The project will address the university’s chronic shortage of athletic facilities, which has hindered the growth of intramural programs and sports clubs, said Carlo Colella, vice president for administration and finance.

“As we continue to advance the university and meet the needs of our students and athletics, the need for these facilities is increasing,” Colella said.

A university analysis of various sites found the golf course to be the best location for a new track stadium, Colella said. The existing track facility on the main campus needs to be relocated because the light-rail Purple Line, now under construction, will encroach on the track complex.

If the relocation is approved this fall, much of the golf course would be preserved for use by students, members and the community, Colella said. Four holes have been designated for development, but it is unclear whether the university would keep all of the remaining 14 or turn it into a nine-hole course.

Golfers and neighbors rallying to preserve the full course say they fear giving up even four holes would be the first step toward losing the entire thing to development. U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh said in 2013 that the golf course probably wouldn’t be around in 20 years; as the university continues to grow, pressure will mount for more campus construction.

The golf course sits on a ­valuable tract in an area inside the Beltway — one that has seen a surge in construction in recent years, led in part by the university, which has taken an active role in the development of College Park. Loh has pushed for multimillion-dollar investments in and around the campus, including support for the $100 million hotel complex at the university’s main entrance.

Five years ago, the school considered a commercial developer’s proposal for an academic village of housing, office and retail on a portion of the golf course. That concept was dropped after significant opposition from neighbors, golfers and elected leaders.

'A local gem'

For nearly six decades, the course has been a favorite of college students and area golfers. It hosts an array of tournaments, university athletic fundraisers and outings by local businesses. The Maryland state high school championship, a multiday tournament, has been held there every fall for the past two decades. Neighbors gather there to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July and to listen to live bands Friday evenings.

Users say they go for the scenic views as much as for the tee times. The golf course, named an Audubon International Certified Wildlife Sanctuary in 2003, is home to many species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles.

“This is not a fancy country club,” said Norman Starkey, a retired NASA administrator, university alumnus and member of the golf course. “It is a local gem.”

Colella declined to say whether the university has other development plans for the golf course.

“This proposal is about enabling us to serve undergraduate students with additional recreation fields, to serve the track-and-field facilities and to alleviate some of the parking displacement that we have experienced in recent years and we will experience years ahead,” he said. “It would serve a broad constituency and help the university meet its many needs.”

University officials say the need to relocate the track-and-field facilities is more urgent now that the state is moving forward with construction of the Purple Line, a 16-mile light-rail project connecting Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. Five of the Purple Line’s 21 stations are on or near the College Park campus. The rail line, expected to be in service in 2022, will encroach on the southern edge of the university’s track complex where it hosts two meets per year and draws as many as 1,000 attendees.

Many in the golf community who fought to defeat the development of the course in 2013 say the latest plan is ill-conceived and would result in a decline in membership and fewer tournaments at the course — and ultimately the end of the 60-year-old facility.

“Nobody is going to play a 14-hole course,” said Starkey, an amateur player who has three degrees from the university. “I call it a going-out-of-business-for-the-golf-course posture.”

Starkey acknowledges the university’s need for more recreation fields but questions the school’s motives for putting them on the golf course instead of choosing sites on the main campus, including existing surface parking lots.

The university says it studied 10 sites on campus for the relocation of the track complex, including surface parking and lawns. But the options presented challenges from limited size to significant loss of parking and impacts on neighbors, school officials said.

Of the three sites considered outside the campus core, the golf course had the fewest impacts, Colella said. He said the area to be repurposed — holes 1, 9, 10 and 18 — is mostly cleared of trees and away from wetlands and other environmental sensitivities. It also is conveniently close to student housing and farther from residential homes, which avoids a conflict for field lighting. And it’s near the university’s performing arts center and the football stadium, which could benefit from additional parking.

The golf course site, however, is just outside the main campus, farther from most classrooms and other athletic training facilities and academic support offices. Critics of the project note that the additional parking the project would provide would be particularly convenient during football season.

“It doesn’t take too much digging to find out why they want to put the parking there,” Starkey said, calling it “perfect” for charging people attending football games.

The university is touting the project as a way to help it become more competitive. The school’s roughly 20 acres of outdoor recreation fields lag behind peer institutions that have a benchmark of 58 acres, according to a university report. That 20 acres includes the university’s lawn areas, and only one of those spaces is an official recreation field with lighting.

Because of the field shortage, it’s common for intramurals to be underway beyond midnight, and the school can’t support any expansion of intramurals or club sports, officials say.

“The golf course provides an opportunity to remedy that,” Colella said.

It also will allow the university to replace some of the parking the school has lost — and continues to lose. Campus parking is expected to be reduced by nearly 1,000 spaces by 2019, as a result of projects in the core of campus, including the construction of a new science building, public policy building and engineering building. The Purple Line also will displace some parking. Officials say garage parking is not financially feasible, and the 600 spots planned at the golf course would mitigate some of the displacement of recent years.

The plan, however, calls into question the university’s commitment to encouraging transit use and discouraging personal vehicles.

“One of the great touted benefits of the Purple Line is effectively helping more people get to campus without using their own cars. Why then, would they advocate adding substantial surface parking in an environmentally sensitive area?” said Barry DesRoches, a golfer and member of the Maryland Golf Course Coalition, which is actively seeking the preservation of all 18 holes. “It doesn’t make sense.”

The university facilities council is expected to review the plan next month. If approved by the panel, it will need the approval of Loh, who has in the past expressed support for redevelopment of the course. The project could move to the design phase by the end of the year and construction after another year.