CINCINNATI — The yellow caution signs on the new stretch of the Wasson Way Trail in Hyde Park caught the attention of David Campbell, as he walked his small white dog this week.
“I did have some fear when I read that (sign), because I thought a golf ball could do some damage,” said Campbell, of East Walnut Hills. “And we’re down low and they’re up high, so I don’t know if you would know one was coming or not, especially in the winter when the trees aren’t filled in. I think somebody needs to put up some kind of screen.”
The signs are public proof of the months-long fight between Cincinnati officials and the Hyde Park Golf & Country Club over stray golf balls landing on the city-owned trail and potentially injuring, or scaring, one of the hundreds of bikers, dog walkers and runners who use it weekly.
City officials opened the new phase of the trail, which begins at Marburg Avenue and heads down through Ault Park, on Sept. 15. It borders the southern portion of Hyde Park Golf & Country Club’s property and its driving range.
The signs warn of errant golf balls traveling at high speeds and are clear about where the blame lies: “The city has informed Hyde Park Country Club management of the dangers this behavior presents to the public and requested protective measures.”
Hyde Park Country Club operations director Stephanie Palmer declined comment. WCPO also sent an email to the country club’s attorney, Kal Steinberg, which was not returned.
“I think the Hyde Park golf club leadership will have to come to grips with the fact that ... they may have some real liability to the users of the trail if something were to go wrong,” said Cincinnati City Solicitor Andrew Garth.
The city has been trying to settle this issue for months, especially after a construction vehicle was damaged in June by a flying golf ball.
“Golf balls from Hyde Park Country Club have been hitting trees near our work location on phase 4 of the Wasson Trail. A short time ago, an errant shot struck the window of our skid-steer loader, shattering the glass. Fortunately, our worker was uninjured, but was very startled. We are concerned with our crew safety as well as concern about further equipment damage. It seems … netting needs to be installed to protect our workers, as well as for the future, when the trail would open to the public,” Paul Long, vice-president of Prus Construction, wrote in a June 15 email to the city.
That email “was an eye opener for the city,” Garth said.
“I think up until that point we didn’t have any concrete or tangible sense that those golf balls could be flying through – and pretty significant speeds,” Garth said.
Garth sent a certified letter to Hyde Park Country Club on Aug. 30, warning the officers of the liability they face if a pedestrian is injured.
“Based on our research, owners and operators of the club – and potential individual club members – have legal liability if a golf ball originates on club property and strikes a user of the trail. The city has urged you to take precautions to protect people from these hazards. Your property manager … has indicated to us that the club has no intention of taking such precautions. Accordingly, in your own best interests, the city demands that you take measures to protect users of the Wasson Way,” Garth wrote.
"Hyde Park Country Club has agreed to temporary measures to reduce the city’s safety concerns during the remainder of this year’s golf season: re-orienting the direction of its driving range, and allowing members to use only iron clubs instead of drivers, to reduce the travel distance of golf balls,” Garth said.
Mary Tracy, who walks the Wasson Way trail almost daily, said she noticed a big improvement in the number of golf balls she’s seen since the club changed the direction of its driving range.
“I haven’t heard people driving the ball, because they’ve moved it the other way. So it doesn’t seem real bad now and I’ve only seen one ball since they’ve changed their position of the driving range,” Tracy said.
Before then, Tracy said, she would often see several golf balls lying on the ground near the trail.
Campbell, of East Walnut Hills, also saw children rushing to pick up stray golf balls along the trail.
“The first time I came on the trail there were a bunch of kids who obviously knew that there were errant golf balls up on the banks and they were scrambling around trying to find them. And there were plenty to be found,” Campbell said.
The club currently has a 50-foot safety net at its driving range, which city officials would like to extend upward to 75 or 100 feet, to fully protect pedestrians. The club has refused to pay, telling the city that the extra netting would cost between $200,000 and $300,000, Garth said.
A job posting for a general manager position at Hyde Park Country Club lists the club’s membership at 575, with a $55,000 initiation fee paid by each new member. It lists the club as having $7.4 million in gross revenues and $4.1 million in annual dues revenue, according to the executive search and consulting firm Kopplin Kuebler & Wallace.
Garth is adamant that taxpayer money will not be spent to add safety netting – which he described as an improvement to a private country club. He said the $300,000 could be spent on hiring three new police officers or adding an entire street’s worth of pedestrian safety improvements.
“This is one of the costs that comes with operating a golf course in an urban environment. You have to keep the people safe who are your neighbors,” Garth said.
The city may file a nuisance claim legal action against the country club as a last resort, Garth said, but is hopeful a settlement can be reached.
“We do need to see some movement from the golf club in terms of their willingness to absorb these costs,” Garth said. “Their operations create an unreasonable risk on someone else’s property … That is a textbook nuisance (claim).”
The city ordinarily files nuisance claims against properties that have fallen into disrepair and become dangerous to residents and pedestrians. Filing that sort of claim against a country club that was founded in 1909 and boasts some of the city’s most influential and wealthy residents as members would be unusual. But this is a pretty unusual case, Garth admitted.
In the meantime, Garth said the signs are necessary to warn the public of the possible, but unlikely, danger of getting struck by a golf ball, or tripping on one while walking or running.
When asked if the country club has asked the city to remove the signs, Garth responded, “Well I don’t think they’re happy about the signs.”