Virginia lawmakers look to lower country clubs' tax bills
By ALAN SUDERMAN
Feb. 28, 2018
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The Virginia General Assembly is set to provide relief for two private country clubs unhappy with their local property tax bills in a move that critics say favors the rich while setting a bad precedent for future tax disputes.
Lawmakers are advancing legislation that would force Arlington County to lower the tax bills of Washington Golf and Country Club and Army Navy Country Club, which have initiation fees higher than what most Virginians make each year. The bill has already passed the House with bipartisan support and breezed past the Senate Finance Committee.
Supporters of the legislation say the county is unfairly taxing the clubs as if they were subdivisions filled with homes instead of golf courses with open space, leading to higher taxes compared to other clubs in Northern Virginia.
"What we have here is a question of equity," said Republican Del. Tim Hugo.
Hugo said the combined yearly property tax bills of the two clubs — $870,000 for Washington Golf and $1.5 million for Army Navy — is equal to the 11 next highest-taxed country clubs in Northern Virginia.
Lobbyists for both clubs said they had to turn to the legislature for help after years of unsuccessful negotiations with the county.
But opponents of the legislation say Arlington has a right to get fair market value for unused parcels of land and state lawmakers should not intrude on a local tax dispute. County board member John Vihstadt said tax bills for golf clubs in Arlington are higher than other places because it's a dense urban county right next to Washington, D.C.
"As the realtors say, 'it's about location, location, location,'" he said.
Both clubs have long and storied histories and count many of Washington's elite as members, including past presidents. Top staff at both clubs are paid handsomely, federal tax records show. The general manager at the Army Navy club makes about $400,000 a year, while the tennis director at Washington Golf and Country Club makes about $300,000 a year.
The Army Navy Country Club allows active-duty military officers to join for free and offers other discounts to veterans, while civilians must pay $72,000 to join the club. The Washington Golf and Country Club did not respond to a request for information about its fees, but Washingtonian magazine reported a decade ago that the fee then was $70,000.
The county estimates that the legislation could cut tax local revenues by about $1.5 million a year.
"The bill is a tax cut for wealthy country club owners, including those outside of Virginia, in favor of raising taxes or cutting services for the residents of Arlington," said Del. Alfonso Lopez, a Democrat who represents Arlington.
The Virginia Association of Counties also opposes the bill, saying it sets a bad precedent for the General Assembly to get involved in specific tax disputes best handled at the local level.
But Hugo said there are plenty of examples of the legislature getting involved in similar issues, and lawmakers need to make sure that Arlington's tax policies aren't driving up costs at a club that serves thousands of military officers and veterans.
"It comes back to basic fairness," Hugo said.
The GOP-controlled General Assembly is often at odds with Arlington, one of the state's wealthiest and most liberal jurisdictions. Last year, Republicans threatened to cut off state funding over the city's sewage problems and the General Assembly passed a law overturning the county's strict regulations on the towing industry.