A review of private golf course valuations in King County were “appropriate and justified,” frustrating some community members who see the low values as a matter of equity.
Redevelopment of those golf courses to some other use would also be legally tricky, according to the Assessor’s Office.
King County engaged Larry Hirsh of Golf Property Analysts to conduct a review of the county’s approach to taxing private golf courses, which have come under scrutiny by advocates who believe that the large tracts of land in Washington’s most populous county are undervalued even as the county continues to operate under a housing shortage and state of emergency around homelessness.
Hirsh was not tasked with appraising each golf course individually, Assessor John Wilson emphasized.
Turning the golf courses into something else would likely be met with legal resistance, said Jim Hall, King County’s chief appraiser, citing a legal principle called “equitable servitude” which, in this case, effectively means that people who purchased properties adjacent to a golf course have an expectation that it will remain a golf course.
The Assessor’s Office is still looking at two of the 28 golf courses in King County, but found that the remaining 26 taxable golf courses were either restricted in their use or it was unlikely that they could be redeveloped, the Assessor’s Office said in an email.
The conversation felt defensive, said Laura Loe, founder of Share The Cities, a Seattle-based land use organizing collective.
“King County has so many different proclamations, resolutions and frameworks around fairness,” Loe said, noting that there was a disconnect between the law and the stated values of the county.
Loe was one of a handful of community members and journalists on the video call, and while some, such as former City Council candidate Shaun Scott, had argued for repurposing public golf courses in the past, they were not there as an organized group.
People are “scraping the couch cushions” in an attempt to find progressive revenue, Scott said, because of the simultaneous crises of a lack of affordable housing, climate change and the economic fallout of the coronavirus which has reduced the amount of money that local governments are bringing in even as they are taking on more costs.
“I think people jumped on that call with the thought that there was the hope or expectation that some of these folks working on the inside of this question were going to give us some insight into the best path forward,” Scott said.
While he did look at private golf courses during his campaign, Scott talked about public golf courses and the public expense of maintaining them. The issue garnered some attention during the 2019 council election that launched a broader conversation around access to public lands and equity, including a back-and-forth with Aaron Levine of Q13 who argued for the access that public golf courses provide to underserved populations in Seattle.
It was useful to hear the obstacles in the way of reevaluating private golf courses and the hurdles to potential redevelopment, Scott said, but that the lack of a sense of urgency outside the call was disappointing.
“If not now, when?” he asked. “It intersects a lot with the broader fight for progressive revenue.”
There was a hope that the analysis would come back with the conclusion that the county is undervaluing private golf courses, said Paul Chapman, a Microsoft employee who advocates around land use issues. Chapman also questioned officials on the call about the difference between the impact of redeveloping a golf course on surrounding property values compared to a neighbor redeveloping a property that blocked views.
What private golf courses like Broadmoor show is that “the very wealthy can use legal fictions to devalue the nominal value of property so they can enjoy all the benefits while externalizing the costs,” Chapman wrote in an email.
“Why do the wealthy get tax advantages that the rest of us can't? Because they have the money to tie up government resources,” Chapman wrote.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Nov 25 - Dec 1, 2020 issue.