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Sun Nov 6 14:44:34 PST 2011


Fairfax County church takes action against TopGolf driving range for wayward golf balls
By Justin Jouvenal, Published: November 5 
Like something out of the Old Testament, an affliction from on high has rained down on Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Fairfax County: golf balls.

One smashed the rear window of Pastor Bob Barnett's Honda Odyssey on a Sunday. Another crashed through a church office window, and a third plunked the youth director on the head, knocking him down as he worked with a group of children. In all, 2,637 balls pelted the property during a recent year-long period, the church claims. Members know because they collected each one.

The source is not divine, but the adjacent TopGolf, a state-of-the-art entertainment complex that features a 76-bay, two-level driving range. When a duffer hits a slice just right, balls can zing about 350 yards over protective netting at the back edge of the range, located off of South Van Dorn Street, and fly right onto the grounds of Faith Evangelical as if it were the 18th green.

The church is so teed off that members have invoked an obscure bit of Virginia law to seek relief. They petitioned a Fairfax court for a special grand jury to decide whether TopGolf could be prosecuted as an ongoing public nuisance.

The special grand jury, which convened in October, concluded that there's reason to pursue the misdemeanor charge. The maneuver set legal gears turning that could result in a January jury trial and possibly a $25,000 fine for TopGolf.

TopGolf is stunned, legal observers are intrigued and court officials are scrambling to understand how the little-used law works. Meanwhile, the church, which has about 350 members and has been at its current location since 1996, is forging ahead.

"They want one thing: to stop the barrage of golf balls," said Faith Evangelical's attorney, Benjamin T. Riddles II. "The church lives in fear of a fatal injury."

TopGolf chief executive Joe Vrankin said the complex has done everything possible to corral balls, including spending about $350,000 on possible solutions and working closely with the church.

Vrankin ticked off a list: Warning signs have been installed, tees have been lowered and the upper deck of the range is closed when the church has Sunday services or special events. When TopGolf replaced a range on the site in 2005, it raised the height of the netting around the facility to more than 100 feet.

TopGolf even hired what Vrankin called a "ball flight expert" to analyze the trajectory of balls and recommend safety measures. And Vrankin said TopGolf has paid as much as $2,000 for damage caused by balls hit onto church grounds in recent years.

Vrankin said it requires a "Tiger Woods drive" to clear the netting. The problem, he said, is that 10 million balls are hit at TopGolf each year, so some are bound to sail onto church property.

But he said it's rare for a ball to fly so far. According to Vrankin, "99.9927 percent of balls stay in the property line."

How does he know?

TopGolf outfits each ball with a microchip that allows the company to track the length of the drive and the number of balls hit. "Not only, without question, is it the safest golf center in the county, the reality is that they just don't want us there," Vrankin said of those at the church.

The dispute over errant duffers has gone on for years. Both sides said they have worked with each other and with county officials to come up with fixes, but in the eyes of the church, the problem remains.

Several church members declined to speak on the record, but some agreed to provide background information. One said the catalyst for their anger was when youth director Jarrett Van Tine was hit in April. He suffered sharp pain and ringing in his ears, the church's complaint to the grand jury said.

The same member said the church did not want to file a civil suit because it could drain the church's finances. So after attorneys suggested trying a continuing public-nuisance complaint, the church was game. "The complaint is something we didn't do lightly," said Pastor Neil Smith.

Under Virginia law, when five or more citizens make a complaint to the circuit court about a continuing public nuisance, the court is required to convene a special grand jury to investigate. Nine members of the church signed on.

Such complaints are rare. "I've never seen it in the 16 or so years I've been on the bench," said Dennis J. Smith, chief judge of the Fairfax County Circuit Court.

In its complaint, the church says a "massive, intolerable, dangerous and life threatening quantity of golf balls" has been driven onto its property. The church even held off on building a playground.

The county's commonwealth's attorney could decide to prosecute the TopGolf case or decline. The case also could be handed over to a special counsel. Both sides could head to court Jan. 23 if they don't iron out their differences before then.

Staff writer Tom Jackman contributed to this report. 

Wayne A. Fox
wayne.a.fox at gmail.com
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