Green golf course hits yellow light

After recommending a change to the zoning code in November to allow such a thing, the Rappahannock County Planning Commission last week tabled Cliff Miller IV’s application for a permit to build a nine-hole golf course along U.S. 211 next to his Sperryville Schoolhouse complex.

At its regular monthly meeting Wednesday night (Feb. 19), the commissioners voted to postpone deciding the matter and give Miller a chance to answer several questions about the proposal to build what would be Rappahannock’s first public golf course.

Detail of Cliff Miller IV’s planned schoolhouse golf course, which was tabled at Wednesday’s meeting.
Detail of Cliff Miller IV’s planned schoolhouse golf course, which was tabled at Wednesday’s meeting.

Miller brought along several consultants to answer the commissioners’ questions, including Tom Mead and Mike McCartin, who have worked on designing the course. McCartin, the course’s architect, presented a sketch to the commissioners — the proposed course designed to be environmentally friendly and “to have a light touch in every aspect.”

Mead and McCartin set about trying to alleviate some of the commissioners’ previously raised concerns, including safety issues brought about by the course’s proximity to the road and its effect on Sperryville’s water supply.

Mead promised the course would be “ecologically responsible,” and would feature 10 sprinklers — one for each of the nine greens and one for a practice green. The rest of the 21-acre course, he said, wouldn’t need to be watered. It would also devote 4.3 acres to wildlife habitat, Mead added, as preparations were underway to provide suitable quail-friendly areas.

McCartin said that the course had been designed with “safety envelopes” to help ensure no stray balls were hit into U.S. 211. The course’s distance had also been carefully considered: No hole is longer than 203 yards, meaning drivers won’t be needed. McCartin did say, however, that there were no plans to provide screening along U.S. 211 or between the course and an adjacent power substation.

For his part, Miller said he’d visited several nearby nine-hole courses, many of which also featured greens near (and in some cases right next to) a major highway, and said he’d found very few, if any, instances of stray balls hitting passing cars. “There are plenty of courses out there with a design not nearly as good as what Mike has come up with,” Miller noted.

Several members of the public weighed in on Miller’s course, in favor and against, including Sperryville resident Bill Fletcher, who supported the what he called this “glorified putt-putt course,” in part because “we need more local businesses in the county.”

Amissville resident Bev Hunter, founder of Rappahannock Friends and Lovers of Our Watershed (RappFLOW), offered tentative support, provided the course could preserve and promote biodiversity in and around the Thornton River, which runs parallel to the course’s southern edge. “Otherwise it belongs in Loudoun [County],” Hunter said.

Sperryville resident (and former planning commissioner) Tom Junk spoke emphatically against the course — specifically the potentially disastrous effects its water use could have on the town of Sperryville. “If this wasn’t using well water, I wouldn’t be speaking on it,” Junk said. “Quite a few wells [in Sperryville] ran dry several years ago, so this concerns me.”

Junk said that he’d read nine-hole courses use an average of 30,000 gallons of water per day to maintain their greens, which would obviously put “stress” on the town’s wells. Furthermore, Junk added that the course and town would likely both need the most water during the same peak periods, which could prove problematic.

“I want assurances my well will be okay,” agreed fellow Sperryville resident Pete Gaster. “I want him to do as he wants on his property, but I want my property to be okay too.”

Both Mead and irrigation expert Kenny Shifflett countered Junk’s argument with different statistics, including those they said showed the average nine-hole course in Virginia using 8.1 million gallons of water a year and that the proposed schoolhouse course would use less than a tenth of that, or 710,400. That number could also be further reduced, Shifflett said, depending on how green Miller wanted to keep the greens.

Nevertheless, water and safety remained the commissioners’ primary concerns. Stonewall-Hawthorne commissioner Gary Light applauded the course’s design and admitted he thought Miller had “done as much as you can at this level.”

Still, Light admitted he had concerns. Even though “there’s theoretically enough water to do this,” Light said he’d rather see Miller do a drawdown test (measurement and analysis of pressure data in a specific well) to concretely determine the well’s viability. “It’s very likely a golf ball or two winds up on [U.S.] 211,” Light said, adding that he’d like to see some kind of vegetative screening.

Hampton district commissioner Alvin Henry also lobbied for a drawdown test and shared Light’s concerns with ball safety. “People just don’t treat balls like loaded guns,” Henry said. “It’s one thing to hit [U.S.] 211, and quite another to hit a passenger.”

Though chairman Charles Strittmatter made a motion to approve Miller’s application, it failed for lack of a second. “It’s just not there yet,” Henry said. “There’s no die-hard opposition to this . . . I’d say you’re about 60 percent there. You just need to go a little bit further.”

With that, the matter was tabled until Miller has a chance to perform the well tests. The commissioners added they’d also like to see a redesign of the fifth hole, which is the nearest to the highway.