2020 may be a year of reckoning for King County’s private golf courses, or at least for their tax bills. The King County Assessor, heeding calls from urban density advocates who have long said the courses pay less than they ought, has pledged to reexamine how golf courses are valued — potentially raising their tax liabilities.

On average, land in the most affordable neighborhoods in Seattle is taxed at 71 times the rate of private golf course land, according to a Seattle Times analysis of county property records. And since property tax rates are calculated, roughly, by dividing the local government budget by the total appraised property value in that district, private courses’ proportionally lower appraised values mean other property owners are paying more.

In other words, homeowners and commercial landlords are subsidizing private courses’ tax bills — despite the fact that most taxpayers will never see inside some of the exclusive clubs, said Shaun Scott, who in 2019 campaigned for City Council on a platform that included raising taxes on private golf courses to fund investments in transit, multifamily housing and green energy.

Scott lost a close race for the District 4 seat. But his plan to raise the taxes on the county’s 28 private courses caught King County Assessor John Wilson’s ear.

“As I’ve looked at it in more detail, I have questions about the value … The rates, particularly at Sand Point and Broadmoor, make you go, ‘Those seem low,'” Wilson said in a June 12 town hall. He’s postponed setting values on golf courses for the next tax cycle until his office reviews how it appraises them.

The call to raise taxes on private golf courses has new urgency. The coronavirus has devastated the tax base. Many local officials have proposed new taxes on high earners and corporations to pay for things like affordable housing. Meanwhile, the anti-racism protests that have swept the nation are focusing scrutiny on institutions founded in discrimination, including some of the county’s private golf clubs.

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The land of Sand Point Country Club, in Northeast Seattle, is appraised at $1.03 per square foot. Broadmoor Golf Club, in Madison Park, at $0.76 per square foot. Across the county’s 27 private golf courses and one driving range, the average appraised land value is $0.49 per square foot, according to county data.

Meanwhile, homeowners in some of the most diverse, affordable parts of the county bear a much higher tax burden.

In ZIP code 98108, the Duwamish Valley, land under single-family residences is appraised at $34.90 per square foot, according to county assessor data. In Auburn, ZIP code 98002, land under single-family homes is appraised at $12.85 per square foot.

Public golf courses — which don’t pay taxes, but are appraised just in case the city decides to sell them — also carry a higher valuation. At Seattle’s four public courses, land varies in value from $12.50 to $62.50 per square foot.

“This is the pattern around the entire U.S.,” said Paul Chapman, a Microsoft manager and vocal advocate for raising taxes on golf courses. “Private golf courses have historically gotten massive tax breaks.” Property taxes on many courses in California, for instance, are frozen at 1978 levels, the result of two legislative exemptions.

If Broadmoor were appraised like a backyard in Auburn, the course would end up paying nine times more in property taxes than the $73,947.95 it was assessed in 2020. Half that bill was for taxes on the 32,000-square-foot clubhouse. (The course was also assessed $242,721.09 in other fees, largely for surface water management.)

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“When it comes to golf, you’re talking about a sport that has really, really deep roots in neighborhood segregation,” said Scott. “In the middle of tumultuous times, the idea that we’re giving away acres on top of acres and millions on top of millions is ludicrous.”

Broadmoor and Sand Point have emerged as particular focal points of the debate, in part because of their proximity to dense Seattle neighborhoods and intense exclusivity — Broadmoor’s links are ringed by razor wire.

Those will be the first two courses the assessor’s office investigates for revaluation, Wilson said. The directors of Broadmoor and Sand Point declined to respond to questions for this article.

At its founding in the 1920s, the subdivision surrounding Sand Point had a racist covenant prohibiting “any Hebrew or any other person of the Malay, Ethiopian, or any other negro or Asiatic Race” from owning a home. Broadmoor had a substantally similar covenant. (That language became unenforceable in 1948.) Private country clubs proliferated in the first half of the 20th century in part because public clubs had been ordered to desegregate. Many Seattle golf clubs restricted membership to white players only through the late 1960s.

While the sport has given more opportunities to Black players in recent years, tax subsidies for private courses are remnants of golf’s inequitable beginnings, Scott said. 

In King County, appraisers pinning values on golf courses first examine recent golf course sales. But because those occur rarely, appraisers also rely on comparisons with recent sales of large, rural parcels.

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That kind of land sells for pennies per square foot. Three huge parcels in Carnation that sold for $0.49 per square foot helped appraisers value golf courses in 2017.

Of course, golf courses aren’t rural. Were any of the clubs to sell their courses, they’d likely score well over the appraised value. One big transfer of largely undeveloped Seattle property — the 2000 sale of 17.8 acres in Laurelhurst to a company associated with telecommunications magnate Bruce McCaw, which is moving forward with plans to build 65 single-family homes on the site — netted $20.14 per square foot.

As local and state governments around the country search for new revenue sources, King County isn’t the only place taking a hard look at golf courses.

In New York, Democrats proposed a bill last year that would have given local governments the option to assess golf courses as if they were other, more valuable types of property, including homes. That bill died after golf industry executives complained it would close courses.

Though Wilson said he’s reconsidering how his department values golf courses, actually getting them to pay higher taxes might require action from voters or the state Legislature. And clubs would likely challenge any action from the assessor that could boost their liability.

The state Supreme Court has twice ruled that if golf club members or surrounding properties restrict the course’s use, development or sale, the course’s market value may be effectively zero.

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Chapman scoffed at that logic.

“It feels like a massive one-percenter tax dodge to say, we want to keep our course so we’re going to put restrictions on it that make it free for us to keep maintaining it,” Chapman said. “I would love to put a restriction on my house that says I’m the only one who can live here, therefore my house has no value. But that wouldn’t be ethical, moral or legal.”

For decades, the assessor’s office has appraised golf courses as if they have such restrictions, which has helped keep values low. Now, the assessor is reinvestigating. Wilson has asked all the county’s clubs whether their courses have use restrictions.

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Eight of the county’s golf courses have reduced their tax burden by arguing that open space is a public good, winning them a so-called “current use” exemption. Others could do the same.

But it’s unclear why a private golf course is a public good, Chapman said. At courses like Broadmoor, Sand Point, and Overlake and Sahalee on the Eastside, guests must be accompanied by a member. Membership fees can range into the six figures.

Scott said his goal isn’t to eliminate golf courses from the map — but he would be fine if many shrunk from 18 to 9 holes as a consequence of higher taxes.

“The ideal scenario is that for people who do enjoy playing the game, we should hold on to it,” he said. “But that shouldn’t come at the expense of questions that are being asked about housing and equity.”

Information from The Seattle Times archives was included in this report. This article has been updated to correct information about the sale of the Laurelhurst land. A previously-reported deal with Quadrant Homes fell through in late 2019.