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Willow Ridge CC and Harrison Battle Over the Golf Course’s Future

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Photo courtesy of Willow Ridge Country Club

The Town of Harrison threatens to seize the Westchester golf course property in a multi-million dollar dispute.

The proposed acquisition of Willow Ridge Country Club by the Town of Harrison has taken several steps forward and a few back in recent weeks as the town and club jockey for negotiating position. Financial projections were provided by Troon Golf, the company retained by the town to study the proposed acquisition, and showed a very rosy financial future if the town operated the club as either a daily fee or semi-private club with additional pool and tennis memberships.

Troon projects a renamed golf course on the site can command daily play greens fees as high as $135 at peak times (with discounts for residents). Residents could belong to the golf club for $5,500 or just the pool/tennis facility for $1,450 annually. The entire proposal is rife with unanswered questions, though, and the process has generated acrimonious messaging from both the town and Willow Ridge, which objects to the use of eminent domain to seize the property.

Each side has accused the other of not acting in good faith. The town contends that Willow Ridge refuses to provide necessary information for a potential negotiated bid while Willow Ridge says the town’s threat of eminent domain is designed to scare off other potential bidders. Club board member Steve Rakoff, whose family has belonged to the club for over fifty years, reports Willow Ridge had been in merger discussions with The Apawamis Club as well as two other potential golf course operators who were interested in buying the property, but they withdrew their expressions of interest as soon as the town declared it was going to pursue eminent domain proceedings.

There is a question, however, of whether the town will actually use that legal process should it decide to go forward with an acquisition. A town official who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the proposal reiterated something said in an earlier town board meeting, “We still want to negotiate. We don’t want to use eminent domain because that can take weeks and weeks.” He says the town is in the process of getting an appraisal and awaiting the report of a town board committee to prepare an offer but is proceeding with the necessary public meetings and other legal steps required for the eminent domain proceeding if it is needed.

The first and biggest question, though, is what the town would pay for the property, 121 acres of prime real estate that sits between Westchester Country Club and the Apawamis Club. Town Attorney Frank Allegretti has cited a $14 million appraisal done in recent years, but the club says that was for a mortgage application and has no relevance. Willow Ridge attorney Andrew Schreiver says that an eminent domain judgment will, by law, be based on “highest and best use” of the property, which would be for the current zoning of one-acre residential lots. He says, “Even if you were extremely conservative and said that only 80 acres of the 121 acres are developable and that they sold for $650,000, that would make the price $52 million.”

Rakoff points to an unimproved 1.37 acre lot with woods, wetlands, and steep slopes that abuts the 12th fairway of the course and went on the market in December for $950,000. “There are many such listings of unimproved lots in this part of Harrison and Rye in that price range.”

The most recent similar transaction in Westchester County was in 2017, when a NJ-based developer bought Elmwood Country Club’s 120 acres for $13 million with plans for a townhome development on a much less attractive site.

Other big questions not yet answered deal with the financial viability of the club under town ownership. Willow Ridge contends that nearby Rye Golf Club has lost money for five of the last 10 years. An examination of the City of Rye financial records shows, however, that the club has generated positive cash flow (adjusted for depreciation and interest expense) during that period even after removing unusual revenues from one-time legal settlements.

The Troon report itself raised questions, since it is apparently predicated on capital and operating expenses similar to those incurred by a private operator, not a municipal entity which pays much higher employee benefits than the private sector. The anonymous town source confirmed the likelihood that the club would be operated by lease or some other arrangement with a concessionaire. “The employees will be theirs, not the town’s,” he said. In his opinion, several million dollars’ worth of capital improvements by them would not be subject to NYS bidding and prevailing wage rules, either.

So multiple questions remain as spring approaches and pesky details threaten to delay opening of the golf course by whomever will be operating it in April. Even quick approval of a simplified environmental review was put on hold by the Harrison town board pending closer examination of some of the data in the Troon report. Stay tuned.