Visualize a horseshoe. Horseshoe Farm, a 146-acre tract on the Neuse River in North Raleigh, is shaped like that, filling in behind a big bend in the river that measures a mile and a half from top to bottom. It’s one of Raleigh’s last big pastures. It’s a wildlife habitat for deer, fox, and–very unusual in the city–for wild turkeys. Raleigh bought it in 1994 to make it a park. The question now is, What kind of park?

A City Council-designated master plan committee has labored for a full year to answer that question, and last month issued a draft report that split its members and infuriated a lot of the interested public. The report calls for the park to be a mix of natural habitat and active recreation, including a big community center/gymnasium, lighted tennis courts and a lighted no-leash dog park. Critics say the two things can’t be mixed: Put in the lights and the barking dogs, they say, and the wildlife will debark for the country.

“Preservation, stewardship and public enjoyment of the park’s exceptional natural resources should be the highest priority,” says an ad hoc group calling itself Friends of Horseshoe Farm. The group, which numbers more than 100, says there are other nearby park sites–and potential park sites–where a gym could go, and the courts, and the dogs. Horseshoe Farm Park, they say, should emphasize river-oriented recreation, environmental education and “unstructured play,” and should “not try to be all things to all people.”

The issues reached the boiling point after a public hearing Nov. 16 that saw nearly every speaker blast not just the draft report but also the process that produced it, which they charged was loaded up in favor of sports-oriented activities–and against a nature park–by the city parks department. The parks department has defended the process and the report.

One charge not rebutted by the city is that the master plan committee was never told about an earlier planning process that clearly designated Horseshoe Farm as a “nature reserve.”

According to Robert Harper, a longtime parks advocate who served as chair of the Neuse River Regional Park master plan committee in 1995-96, Horseshoe Farm was supposed to be treated as a place of “regional significance,” not as an ordinary community park.

But a year ago, when the Horseshoe Farm Park committee was formed, it was told to treat the site as a community park and to include recreational facilities, according to David Deans, a member of the committee who says he started out neutral on the issue but is now convinced the nature reserve designation is the way to go.

“Our committee is divided, and there is brewing contentiousness,” Deans said in an e-mail to the city’s Parks, Recreation and Greenways Advisory Board, an official body that will receive the master plan committee’s report when it’s done. “There are many who believe that this planning process was heavily manipulated to reach a preordained conclusion,” Deans continued. “This is the root of the anger and frustration of the public.”

The next round in the battle is tonight–7 p.m., Dec. 7–when the master plan committee meets again at Durant Park, in the Campbell Lodge (off Gresham’s Lake Road). Ultimately, the committee’s report, and the parks board’s recommendations, will be taken up by the City Council, which has the final say over what the park is and how it’s paid for.

For pictures of the site, and an excellent compilation of the official records of the master plan process, visit Friends of Horseshoe Farm’s Web site, .