Golf’s three biggest legal challenges

Anyone who’s been near a golf course knows the game has its share of legal land mines. After all, people are swinging clubs and sending tiny, hard projectiles into the air at alarming speeds. (And, let’s be frank: Some have no idea, at point of contact, where the golf balls are going ...)However, golf’s legal landscape is hardly static. Sure, errant golf balls have always been a concern, but a number of pressing and complicated issues have been emerging as golf has gone through its well-documented challenges. Think legal ramifications from abandoned courses, water availability, environmental impacts, and membership flight. Recently, the industry’s attorneys have been especially busy. Golf Inc. contacted several of the top legal minds in golf to identify the main legal hazards.

CLOSED COURSES For one thing, the rash of closed courses during the past few years has caused a rash of legal issues. In 2013, nearly 160 courses were shuttered. And what becomes of them?

That’s led to some rather heated disagreements.

“The biggest thing is the decommissioning and repositioning of these closed golf courses,” said Dennis Hillier, an attorney at Greenberg Traurig who works in the firm’s Boca Raton, Fla., office.

It can be nothing if not complicated. For instance, the course’s property title has to be reviewed to see if restrictions exist, he said. A proposed development needs to meet current zoning and land use regulations or get a variance. Environmental permits may be needed. If the course stands alone — that is, there is no development nearby — a new use might be welcomed because of the additional tax revenue it will bring, Hillier said. However, if the course is near existing housing, look out. Residents tend to fight plans to convert golf courses because of the loss of open space and concerns over traffic and noise that a new development could bring.

In Escondido, Calif., a developer wanted to convert an abandoned course into housing, but residents successfully petitioned the City Council to declare the site open space. The developer sued the city and also tried to get the project approved by voters, only to lose. It’s been quite the ongoing legal mess, and it’s hardly the only such fight in the nation over a closed golf course.

That’s why many involved in such 
projects are looking at what’s happening with a lawsuit in Washington state, filed by a number of homeowners in a development where a course was shuttered, said attorney Randolph Addison, of Addison Law in Dallas.

New houses were being planned to replace it. The homeowners sued, saying the land could only be used for a golf course because the course had been a prime selling point. However, there was no written guarantee that the course would be a permanent part of the project. That’s usually a necessary element for relief.

The Washington Supreme Court recently ruled that the parties could sue because the developer had marketed the golf course as a key component and homeowners were led to believe the course would have a permanent presence. Potentially, a lower court could force the developer to put a course back in — even if it’s not profitable.

This also could mean that developer options could be severely limited when it comes to failing golf courses anchoring residential developments in other areas. Other homeowners could use this case, if successful, as a precedent.

“Once you say it’s going to be golf, you establish what’s called an equitable covenant,” Addison said. “Then you can’t change it to residential.”He noted that this is just one case, and its impact has yet to be determined. However, its impact could be significant.

Another big problem with shuttered golf courses is maintenance. That is, the lack of it. It doesn’t take long for once lush golf courses to get overrun with weeds and high grass. They become eyesores.

Attorney Todd Miller of Jefferson City, Mo., has represented owners of closed golf courses who are under pressure from municipalities to keep grass at a certain height.

Homeowner associations are sometimes stuck with the responsibility, he said. That’s the case at Indian Springs in Louisville, Ky. The HOA has “limited funds to mow and maintain the vast acreage of what was once a golf course,” he said.

Abandoned courses have become more than just eyesores. Bay Tree Golf Plantation in Myrtle Beach, S.C., had to have its clubhouse torn down because it became a refuge for the homeless. A meth lab also was found on site.

Closures have also led to a spate of homeowners seeking property tax reductions, Miller added. Studies show that each property on a golf course enjoys a premium value of 7 percent, he said. Hard to argue that the premium remains once a course is shuttered.

Read the free digital issue of Golf Inc. Magazine here to find out what other legal challenges the golf indsutry faces. 


What about turning the open space into a park? Or keep it open space run by the HOA so a park just for the residents .... oir taxes could go down. Then if our HOA fees go up, it could be a wash .... is this possible?

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