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Harrison Moves to Acquire Willow Ridge Country Club by Eminent Domain

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Photo by John Fortunato

Public hearings begin the process for the town to turn the private golf club into a public facility in Westchester County.

The town of Harrison has taken the first step to legally seize Willow Ridge Country Club over the vocal objections of club members who have been soliciting bids to sell the property in recent months. A public hearing that began the eminent domain process was held December 17 and comments from interested parties will be accepted until early January.

Harrison town attorney Frank Allegretti claims that the town attempted to meet with the club after hearing it was for sale this fall, but encountered difficulties in getting the information needed to make a timely bid, thus forcing the beginning of eminent domain proceedings. Club officials dispute that account and say they are open to negotiating a sale to the town.

At stake is the future of the 121-acre property where golf has been played since 1917 when it was originally organized as Green Meadow Country Club.  The present member-owned club took over the course in 1965. The original golf course was designed by Maurice McCarthy and updated in recent years by architect Ken Dye. The clubhouse was renovated in 2002, and a large outdoor deck was added in 2012. In addition to an eight-acre driving range and short game facility, the club has Har Tru tennis courts, a large swimming pool, and a spacious banquet facility.

Comments during the public hearing were about equally divided between Harrison residents who favor the idea of a town-operated golf course as long as it doesn’t increase their taxes and Willow Ridge members who don’t necessarily oppose the concept but object to the use of eminent domain to accomplish it. They point out that the amount the town will be legally required to pay in that scenario will be determined by the “highest and best use” principle of valuation. In other words, the ultimate price for the property would be based on the value of one-acre residential lots, the use for which it is zoned, not the price of a golf course.

Allegretti said that the club’s own recent appraisal set the value at $14 million but it was unclear whether that was based on its value as a “going concern” or the real estate itself. He also said the town would be completing its own appraisal as part of the eminent domain process.

The town is consulting with Troon Golf, a nationally-recognized golf course operator that also manages Westchester Hills among other area clubs, to study potential operational models. No revenue or expense projections have been provided by the town, although it’s assumed they are pending Troon’s recommendations. Willow Ridge officials say the club’s operating budget is about $5 million annually and that some $3-5 million in capital improvements are needed to upgrade an aging irrigation system, handle drainage problems in wetlands, and replace maintenance equipment.

Both sides in the dispute cite the golf clubs operated by the city of Rye and the town of Eastchester as examples of the effect a Willow Ridge acquisition would have on Harrison’s finances. Interestingly enough, the town claims the revenues generated by the two facilities more than cover the expenses, whereas the Willow Ridge contingent says public records show Eastchester’s Lake Isle CC has lost money in seven of the last 10 years and Rye Golf Club has done the same in five of the last 10 years.

The public comment period for the eminent domain proceedings will end January 7. It remains to be seen whether the first tee at Willow Ridge CC will be open next spring and, if so, who will control the tee sheet.