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Teed off at tax break

Some question the 75 percent exemption given to country clubs

Concrete steps leading into Newton's Cabot Elementary School are crumbling and the building has no handicapped access. Across town at Fire Station No. 7, the roof leaks water into the firefighters' bunk room.

Meanwhile, Charles River Country Club in Newton -- with its rolling fairways and carefully manicured putting greens -- received a $381,000 tax break last year under a state law that exempts private country clubs from paying 75 percent of their property taxes.

According to the Newton assessor's office, Woodland Golf Club also cut $301,000 on its tax bill last year and Brae Burn Country Club shaved $390,000 from its taxes. Counting Charles River, that's more than $1 million in taxes that Newton cannot collect from three private, local institutions. Framingham and Marlborough country clubs also take advantage of the tax break, as do many other private country clubs across the state.

That has outraged Newton Ward 6 Alderwoman at Large Victoria L. Danberg, who said the city could use the money for repairing city schools, fire stations, and other public buildings instead of subsidizing "playgrounds for the wealthy."

She wants local elected leaders and the city's legislative delegation to toughen the law.

"We can take them on," Danberg said. "I can tell you very few people have sympathy for the poor golfers from these clubs who are crying poverty."

Historically, few have challenged Chapter 61B of the state tax code, a little-known law enacted in the late 1970s that allows any nonprofit organization to receive a 75 percent reduction in taxes as long as the land is open to the public for "recreational purposes" or owned by a nonprofit organization. While private country clubs are generally not open to the public, many operate as nonprofit organizations. The IRS allows the exemption under a provision for "social groups" like country clubs, trade unions, and chambers of commerce. To qualify, groups must meet exclusively, have a dues-paying membership, and have no written policy that discriminates on the basis of race.

Under the state's 61B exemption, golf clubs agree to keep their open space undeveloped or repay all tax breaks if their land is ever sold to a developer.

Becky Blaeser, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Golf Association, which lobbied for the law's enactment nearly 30 years ago, said the exemption has helped keep many of the state's smaller golf courses afloat during difficult financial times as well as keeping open space green.

Newton's three clubs sit on some of the largest undeveloped tracts of land in the city. Charles River Country Club occupies 219 acres; Brae Burn is on 193 acres; and Woodland has 133 acres. Although only members and their guests are allowed on the grounds, Blaeser questioned whether city residents would want to see the land sold off as a housing subdivision.

"People love to talk about private clubs, but those exemptions are just one piece of this legislation," Blaeser said. "You have to look at it like it's a good thing for the preservation of open land."

Officials at the state Department of Revenue said they have not calculated the total cost of the tax break across Massachusetts. But the savings to country clubs can be substantial. Framingham Country Club, which bills itself online as an "elite" golf course, paid about $11,000 in local property taxes for 2007, according to town officials. Without the state exemption, the bill would have been in excess of $46,000.

Marlborough Country Club, a relatively modest 61-acre course in the heart of the city, opens to the public on Mondays and Tuesdays every week. According to city assessor Anthony Trodella, the land had a market value of $9 million this year. The country club's board of directors paid the city $56,000 in property taxes, saving about $168,000 under Chapter 61B.

Club president Michael J. Scafidi of Northborough did not return phone calls.

State Representative Pamela Resor, a Democrat from Marlborough who has filed legislation to make Chapter 61B easier to apply for in recent years, said she appreciates what the law does for conservation, especially in communities that have been overwhelmed by development. She said she did not pursue an end to the country club exemption, saying it was a trade-off she was willing to accept.

"You take the good with the bad," she said of the law.

On a recent weekday at Newton Commonwealth Golf Course, many golfers said they appreciated the open space. What troubled them in general was that they couldn't join.

Frank Procopio, a self-described avid golfer, said he couldn't afford the initiation fee to belong to one of Newton's private golf clubs, which run in the tens of thousands of dollars. He said he would be more sympathetic of a tax break for country clubs if they occasionally opened their doors to the public.

"The way it is now, you've got to schmooze, or you've got to know someone, or be the friend of a friend," he said.

Gerry Goolkasian, a teacher from Lexington, said he was shocked by the tax exemption. Raised in Newton, he said he worked as a caddy at Brae Burn and saw that membership had its privileges.

"The way money was spent freely by both businessmen and private citizens there makes the idea of it appalling to me," he said of the exemption.

Danberg, a former finance executive who is running for reelection this fall, said she wants the city's legislative delegation to take steps to end the exemption.

Earlier this year, she visited some of the city's country clubs posing as a potential member. Danberg said Charles River Country Club charged more than $50,000 for an initiation fee.

Officials of Charles River did not return calls seeking confirmation of that figure.

To become a member at Newton's Woodland Golf Club, founded in 1896, candidates must be sponsored by three current members. General manager David Garfinkel said a prospective member's finances, character, and recreational interests are evaluated. He declined to disclose the initiation fee, but he said the club has a diverse membership.

"It's important for people to realize we are accessible and not elitist," he said.

Frannie Capello, president of Newton's firefighters' union, said the city's country clubs will often open up their courses once a year to the city's firefighters. While that is much appreciated by firefighters, he said, he didn't think it was worth the revenue lost to the city. Several city fire stations are in need of repairs and the city has struggled with finding ways to pay for the improvements.

"I'm kind of taken aback by it," Capello said of the tax exemption. "Let's build on the land and get the tax revenue."

Dori Zaleznik, chairwoman of the Newton School Committee, said she would also welcome discussion about increasing taxes for the city's private country clubs. Many schools need new boilers and other updates.

State Representative Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat, said she was surprised to learn of the exemption and said she would study it further. Newton Mayor David Cohen, who served multiple terms in the state Legislature, said he would also be interested in discussing the issue further.

State Senator Cynthia Stone Creem, a Democrat from Newton, said in an e-mailed statement that she supported the law because "Chapter 61B has worked to protect open space." She did not respond to a request for additional comment by deadline.

Danberg said she would be "very happy to be the lead person crying foul" in an effort to amend the exemption. She said the worst possible outcome is that country clubs would sell off land to private developers who might build houses -- something she called unlikely.

"I don't think that would happen," she said. "Their membership would say . . . just pony up the rest of the money."

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.

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