Tax bill would aid golf courses

Senate OKs plan promoted as step to protect open space

`Not the time,' foe says

April 02, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Private golf courses and country clubs would get a tax break of more than $600,000 next year under a plan approved by the state Senate yesterday.

The bill, promoted as an environmental preservation measure, would cap the property tax assessment of privately owned courses at $1,000 per acre. Some golf and country clubs are assessed at up to seven times that rate.

The House of Delegates has passed identical legislation. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has not said whether he'll sign it into law. "He'll review the arguments carefully on both sides before he makes a decision," said Michael Morrill, his spokesman.

Amid the fiscal grief emanating from Annapolis, a windfall for golf courses struck some as outrageous. "This is not the time, if there ever is a time, to be giving a tax break to recreational facilities, let alone private facilities," said Del. Sharon Grosfeld, a Montgomery County Democrat.

The bill's backers argue it is the least expensive and most sensible way for the state to protect land from developers waiting eagerly to build high-end houses.

"A lot of times, these golf courses are waterfront property, and the potential for development is very high," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery Democrat who sponsored the bill. "It's the best and cheapest way to preserve open space."

Sen. Robert M. Neall, an Anne Arundel Democrat, noted that taxpayers have paid "retail" for open-space acquisitions such as Chapman's Landing, 2,225 acres in Charles County that cost $25.3 million to preserve. The golf course tax break "is nickels and dimes compared to that," he said.

Some liberal Democrats, including Sen. Paul Pinsky of Prince George's, disagreed. He said the proposal is another chapter in the state's history of corporate welfare. "It just seems astonishing to me. ... We have mental health facilities that are failing. We don't have enough to pay for education," Pinsky said.

Proponents acknowledge that the bill's title -- "Country Clubs and Golf Courses" -- with its associations of wealthy members sipping drinks and swinging nine-irons didn't help their cause. But, they argued, the merits of the plan are obvious.

Maryland has 135 taxable golf courses. Last year, as market value shot up, their average tax assessments increased 42 percent.

Under the bill, if the courses agree to enforce nondiscriminatory membership policies, they could enter into an agreement with the state to limit the assessment of their land at $1,000 an acre. A club's fairways, tees and buildings are separately taxed and would not fall under the deal.

The clubs also would have to agree not to sell for 10 years; if they did sell, they would have to pay back the difference in rates.

Because property taxes go mostly to the counties, local governments stand to lose the most: $553,330 next year, and up to $1.5 million four years later.

R. John Shields, part owner of Glenn Dale Golf Club in Prince George's County, said the tax break -- a savings of $4,500 for his 123 acres -- would help him resist the two sale contracts sitting on his desk. Such pressures, he said, exist for many clubs.

"There are too many golf courses and not enough golfers," said Shields, president of the Maryland Golf Course Owners Association. "The profits aren't there anymore."

He predicted the legislation wouldn't end up costing local or state governments any money because a previous agreement allowing country clubs to halve the cost of property improvements would disappear under the new rules.

Regardless of the cost, some lawmakers say the legislation is wrong. "This is one of the most egregious tax credits that has come through this year," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo of Howard County, who was embarrassed to note that she voted for the measure, unaware of what it did.

Others said country club owners should get help if they need it, just like anyone else in business. "Middle-class citizens vote and pay taxes, too," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat.

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