Rockville country club could lose tax breaks over complaint of discrimination

October 01, 1990|By David Michael Ettlin

Maryland's attorney general is seeking to revoke a Rockville country club's property tax break because it allegedly violated a state discrimination law by denying full membership to a qualified female applicant last year.

The complaint against Manor Country Club in Rockville was made under the same 1986 state law that last year stripped the prestigious Burning Tree Country Club of its preferential tax treatment. The law allows long-standing property tax breaks accorded to country clubs for preserving open space to be revoked if membership policies violate Maryland's anti-discrimination statutes.

Under a 1981 agreement with the state, Manor Country Club's land -- currently valued at $10.5 million -- is assessed for country club use at $1.1 million.

The complaint -- issued on Friday and made public yesterday -- was prompted by the club's rejection last year of associate member Amy Schmidt Hamilton's application for full "active" membership.

Officials at the country club were unavailable yesterday for comment on the administrative proceeding and did not return a reporter's telephone calls. G. William Aitken, president of the club's board of governors, could not be reached.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. alleged in an 11-page statement of charges that the decision by Manor's all-male governing board was "tainted with arbitrariness" and based on reasons that have "not barred the routine approval of male associates as active members, even those with records of delinquent payment" of past bills.

Noting that the club's main reason for rejecting applications by male associates for full membership had been "a review of responsibility for club bills and past demeanor as an associate member," the attorney general's office observed that with "an annual income in six figures, ownership with her husband of two homes and other substantial assets, Mrs. Hamilton is financially qualified for admission as an active member of the club."

Furthermore, "no genuine issue has been raised with respect to her demeanor around the club for the past 10 years" under the umbrella of her parents' membership, according to the charges, which also were signed by Assistant Attorneys General Robert A. Zarnoch, Kaye Brooks Bushel and Kathryn M. Rowe.

Between July 1, 1985, and Sept. 12, 1989, 24 male associate members applied for active membership in the club, and only one of them was eventually denied it, because of "chronic delinquency in bill payment," according to the charges. Another male applicant was granted full active membership despite a credit problem, the charges state.

In September 1989, Mrs. Hamilton, 27, became the first woman to be considered for associate member ship, which until then had been limited by the club's bylaws to "sons and sons-in-law" of members, Mr. Zarnoch said the attorney general's investigation showed.

Soon after she was accepted as an associate, Mrs. Hamilton became the first woman to seek to move from associate to active membership, which has greater privileges, including voting rights and "prime-time golfing hours," Mr. Zarnoch said.

A resident of Olney, Mrs. Hamilton is a sales representative for her father's company, Space Saver Systems Inc., in Wheaton.

As of August 1989, Manor Country Club had 1,108 members, 100 of them women -- and 72 of the female members were widows of club members. All 100 women fell under 13 membership designations other than the "associate" category, Mr. Zarnoch said.

Among the club's active members, 336 were male and six were female, although how the women achieved that status was unclear, Mr. Zarnoch said. The club had 107 associate members, all of them male.

The attorney general asked for a hearing before an administrative law judge in the Office of Administrative Hearings to determine the facts of the case and recommend whether the country club should retain its preferential tax assessment. The judge's recommendation will be made to Mr. Curran, who has final say in the matter, Mr. Zarnoch said.

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