This Statement from Town Attorney, Frank Allegretti, representing the Town of Harrison, New York, includes rebuttals on comments published in Gannett’s Journal News (Lohud) in Westchester and Rockland Counties, New York. Here is Mr. Allegretti’s report:
STATEMENT FROM TOWN ATTORNEY FRANK P. ALLEGRETTI REGARDING WILLOW RIDGE COUNTRY CLUB MADE AT THE NOVEMBER 18TH TOWN BOARD MEETING
I would like to spend a little time to explain what has transpired over the last month and where we are at presently with Willow Ridge and why this matter is on the agenda tonight.
During the first week of October Mayor Belmont heard that the club was up for sale and possibly closing its doors. The Mayor attempted to reach the club President every day over the span of 5 days leaving voice mails and following up with emails to express the Town’s interest in having a discussion. Not one of the numerous messages were returned by the club.
I then reached out to members of the club and I did in fact ascertain that the club was actively seeking potential buyers. Mayor Belmont and I had a meeting with Willow Ridge on Monday, October 19 wherein we expressed the Town’s strong interest in acquiring ownership of the club. We advised the club that we would need to perform some due diligence, which includes an appraisal and engaging consultants, before we would be in any position to extend any sort of offer to purchase the club.
2 days later, the club called me and asked us to come back to continue our discussions with them. We scheduled it for the following Tuesday, October 27th wherein we also had a site visit of the property. At that time, I advised the club that I had already engaged an appraiser and that it was an approximate 3-4 week time frame to receive an appraisal. I also advised the club that I was in the process of getting Troon Golf on board as one of our consultants and that we would need some time for Troon to do some due diligence for the Town. Troon is the largest professional golf management company that provides services to over 470+ courses all over the world.
Willow Ridge advised us that they had 3 other interested groups that they were in discussions with, 2 that wanted to continue its golf operations and 1 that wanted to residentially develop the property.
Notwithstanding the fact that Willow Ridge was aware that the Town was acting in complete good faith and getting its due diligence started – and that the Town would need a short period of time to accomplish it – the club only 2 days later on October 29th sent out a letter demanding that all interested parties were required to submit written offers via a detailed Letter of Intent by Saturday, November 7th at 5:00 p.m. – effectively cutting off negotiations with the Town.
The Town Board authorized the retention of eminent domain counsel at a special meeting of the Town Board on October 30th to pursue the acquisition of the club. I had several phone conversations with the club’s attorney between October 30th and November 2nd that I thought were productive. I expressed the Town’s hope that we could still sit down with the club and negotiate a transaction at arms-length. I also asked why the club set tight deadline for offers of 11/7 when they knew the Town needed time to even be in position to put up an offer. The attorney advised me that the club is running out of cash and bills are going unpaid. I advised the attorney that it really should not matter if there were another 2-3 months of unpaid bills as they would all be paid at a closing in the near future.
I further told the club’s attorney that Troon’s report had a timeline of 30-45 days from when they would be able to access the club and perform a complete audit and assessment of the facility.
The Northeast Troon Team was on-site Friday, November 6th. The club was previously advised that Troon would like to speak with the Superintendent of the golf course while they were there. The club’s attorney responded via email stating that there would be no access to their employees and all request for information was to run thru her. The club refused to make the Superintendent available to answer basic questions on the course maintenance and operations.
The Troon team reported that it was apparent from the get-go at the site visit that the President of Willow Ridge and their lead negotiator did not want Troon there and they wanted them off the property as soon as possible. They were also not forthcoming on many things during the visit.
I submitted to the club’s attorney a list of items that Troon needed as a follow-up to the site visit.
Willow Ridge supplied some information and flat out refused to provide information as to other items, including certain liabilities with employees and their unions.
Then, Willow Ridge advised us last week that the Town would not be allowed to conduct a Phase I environmental assessment, which is typically part of everyone’s due diligence on an acquisition of this magnitude. I had advised the club’s attorney that the Town’s environmental consultant would need to perform a non-invasive site inspection of the property and that they would to speak with the golf course Superintendent to get an understanding of what chemicals are being used on the property.
Today – the club issued a self-serving press release titled: “Why Harrison Should Cease Consideration of Eminent Domain Proceedings” that is just littered with false and inaccurate statements. They list of slew of reasons, which I will address in order:
The club claims this will be a huge burden for the taxpayers and that it will cost “tens of millions of dollars to take Willow Ridge” The truth is that we do not know yet what our appraisal will come in at, but we do know the club’s own appraisal came in at 14M less than 1 year ago and we do know that the club has been bleeding money for years and most of their members have left Willow Ridge to join other clubs. Selling the club as an ongoing concern with few members remaining will not reap the club the “tens of millions” they think they will obtain.
We are consulting with Troon for the very reason that they will provide us various models of how this club can be operated without this being any burden on our taxpayers. In other words, they will help the Town figure out how we can generate sufficient revenue to cover the anticipated expenses — both capital and operating.
The City of Rye owns and runs Rye Golf club and the Town of Eastchester owns and operates Lake Isle Country Club. Both clubs are run successfully by each municipality with their revenues more than covering their expenses. There are no financial burdens on their taxpayers.
Next, the club claims that there would be a loss of tax revenue. The fact is that the club is only paying town taxes of about $47,000 per year. Our total tax levy for the entire town is approximately $47,000,000, which makes the club’s town taxes 1/100th of 1% of our total taxes. This is a non-issue.
Next, the club claims that the Covid-19 economic impacts are negatively impacting the Town with a loss of tax revenue. That is simply not true. The Town has collected most if not all the Town taxes that have been owed since the start of the pandemic.
Next, the club asserts that they have other options for private investment. While this may be true, this just completely ignores the potential benefits the Town would provide to its residents and our community – and in keeping this as open space for active recreational use, including tennis and a pool. Make no mistake, Willow Ridge is negotiating with private developers who would want to residentially develop the club into 1-acre homes on their 121 acre site. They are also in discussions with a private school about relocating there. This is not even a permitted use in a 1-acre residential zone.
Next, they claim the vast impact of the eminent domain process comes with risks and variables. The procedures of eminent domain are not overly complicated. The Town Board conducts the public hearing and hears from all interested parties. If they find that a public use, benefit or purpose will be accomplished by the acquisition it may issue findings in that regard. Any appeal of that ruling goes straight to the Appellate Division in Brooklyn who issue summary rulings on EDPL appeals. There will be no protracted litigation.
They further claim that there are golfing opportunities minutes away, and they cite to the 6 other private golf courses in Harrison and the 2 county public courses nearby. This ignores the reality that most of our fine Town residents do not have the $150,000 initiation fee to join Westchester Country Club or Old Oaks Country Club. It also ignores the explosion of the amount of people who try to play golf on public courses, especially this past season. Has anyone at Willow Ridge tried to make a tee time on a public course lately? It is virtually impossible to play on a weekend, when most people can only play.
It is quite clear that all of the actions of Willow Ridge towards the Town have not been in good faith. Their press release is just proof positive of this. It seems to me that rather than try to work cooperatively with the Town to ensure that our residents do get the chance at a tremendous opportunity here, they are looking at other groups in a misguided effort to bring in more $ that they can sprinkle around to their small group of investors.
We are in a position where the Town can proceed to acquire the club pursuant to the procedures set forth in the EDPL of NY. The public hearing will be held on December 17th at which time anyone can speak about the proposed acquisition. For those that are not able to attend the public hearing, the Town will welcome written comments and make them part of the public hearing record.