Bacon's Rebellion

Tax the Country Clubs Like You’d Tax Anyone Else

Prime real estate: the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington

As if the General Assembly didn’t have enough image problems, our august representatives are pushing legislation that would provide property tax relief for two Arlington County country clubs, reports the Associated Press. The bill has passed the House with bipartisan support and made it through the Senate Finance Committee.

The combined property bills of the Washington Golf and Country Club and the Army Navy Country Club amount to $870,000 a year — equal to the 11 next highest-taxed country clubs in Northern Virginia. The clubs have spent years in unsuccessful negotiations with Arlington County to lower the tab, so they have turned to the General Assembly.

“What we have here is a question of equity,” says Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville. “It comes back to basic fairness.”

But opponents of the bill say the clubs can afford it. Writes the AP:

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 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.

OK, nobody feels sorry for the rich, snooty swells who belong to the club. Reverse snobbery always plays well in certain quarters. Screw ’em, they’ve got plenty of money. Let them pay more.

I don’t have much sympathy for the stick-it-to-the-rich argument. But I do have sympathy for a different argument. County board member John Vihstadt said the tax bills for the golf clubs are so high because the property values are so high. Arlington is a dense urban county right next to Washington D.C.

What is the highest and best use of the land? Golf courses for the well-to-do? Or development that provides housing, retail, and office space in the core of the Washington metropolitan area, which is suffering from a shortage of developable land? From an economic perspective, it’s not even close. The land would be worth more if converted to mixed-use development.

Property owners have rights, of course, and no one should compel the country clubs to relinquish their golf courses. No one is talking about exercising eminent domain to take over the land, but I would certainly oppose any effort to do so should anyone propose it. On the other hand, the clubs have no more right to favorable tax treatment than other property owners. The General Assembly needs to butt out and let Arlington make its own land use decisions.

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