Former country club members file suit

19 fear being excluded from sale of Bonnie View

January 28, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

For 25 years, Joel Cohen was a loyal member of Bonnie View Country Club.

"We had the prettiest building, the best golf course and the nicest array of people," he said.

But now, Cohen, his wife Joan and 17 others are in a bitter dispute with club leadership - complaining that they have been unfairly left out of an expected windfall from the sale of Bonnie View's 160 acres of prime real estate.

A year ago, with the club closed and its future uncertain, the 19 walked away from their memberships. Yesterday, they filed suit, contending that they were promised a chance to rescind their resignations and retain their equity in the club.

"This thing was not handled fairly," said Dr. Sheldon Silverman, a plaintiff and former member of the club's board.

The suit, filed yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court, alleges that the club's president, Armand Levin, reneged on assurances that the former members would be given a month to reconsider their resignations. The former members are asking the court either to reinstate their memberships or award each household hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. The club is also named in the suit.

The plaintiffs - nine couples and one individual - allege mismanagement and abuse of the members' trust by Levin and other members of the club's board. Dozens of members resigned early last year after they balked at paying dues of about $600 a month to belong to a club whose facilities were essentially shut down and whose fate they had no role in deciding, according to the plaintiffs.

"Nobody knew what was going to happen, and, meantime, the club was closed. There was no service. You couldn't eat there or even play cards or do anything," said Jonathan Azrael, the attorney representing the former members.

Levin did not return telephone messages left at his house or the club yesterday.

The country club property - an 18-hole layout over rolling hills, with a clubhouse and tennis courts - straddles the city-county line in the Mount Washington area and is the subject of a disputed development proposal.

Beazer Homes, a Baltimore-area developer, has county approval to build 355 single-family homes and is pursuing an alternate plan for more than 500 condominiums, townhouses and detached houses for people over age 55. Nearby residents are fighting both proposals.

The suit offers a glimpse of the club's internal difficulties leading up to the sale, including its failed plans to build a new club on Route 30 in Reisterstown and unsuccessful negotiations to merge with two other area country clubs.

The 50-year-old club's board voted in the fall of 2001 to sell its land - for $15 million, according to the suit. But the board discovered that the proceeds would not be enough to pay off the club's debts and open the new golf course, the plaintiffs say.

Starting in the fall of 2002, the board began negotiating a merger with Suburban Country Club in Pikesville. Bonnie View stopped operations about that time, and members began playing golf at Suburban.

But in December of that year, according to the complaint, negotiations abruptly ceased after Bonnie View board members demanded changes to the agreement. By February, the plaintiffs say, Levin had attempted and failed to secure a merger with Chestnut Ridge Country Club in Lutherville, and was trying again to consummate a deal with Suburban.

The former members allege in the suit that they were told by Levin that if they resigned by Feb. 28, 2003, they would have until the end of March to return to the membership rolls. But when they attempted to rescind their resignations, they contend, Levin refused to allow them back in, saying he had been advised by an attorney that doing so would violate the club's rules.

Amid the uncertainty, Cohen said, more than 100 members dropped out of the club.

The board's decisions had the net effect of reducing the number of people who would share in the proceeds of the sale, meaning each one would get more money, Cohen said.

Silverman said he knew when he submitted his resignation that it was possible that members would be due a payout from the land sale. At the time, the club's prospects were murky, and he didn't want to pay another year's dues. Even so, he said, he never would have written the letter if he hadn't been given assurances that he could rescind the resignation later.

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