Has Bethesda's all-male Burning Tree Club given up the battle to win the war?
That is what some state and local officials believe after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last fall not to hear the exclusive golf club's challenge of a Maryland law denying Burning Tree a reduced property tax rate as long as it refuses to accept women as members.
The high court's action immediately disqualified the club from a preferential assessment program that rewards country clubs for maintaining their land as open space. That program had saved Burning Tree hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, but state officials say the club's officers have not contacted them to say they have changed their membership policy and want to reapply.
"I assume, since we have not heard from them, they have not changed their policy and I assume they are not going to change their policy," said Assistant Maryland Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch, who represented the state during Burning Tree's legal battle to retain the tax break and its single-sex clubhouse.
Late last year, Montgomery County's tax assessor sent Burning Tree a $938,000 bill for back taxes -- representing the difference between what the club paid between 1986 and 1989 while pursuing its case in court and what it would have paid without the preferred tax status.
Initially, the club challenged the bill, but gave up its appeal in January and paid the amount, said Richard Rudnick, Montgomery County's chief tax assessor.
This week, the county will send another bill to Burning Tree on the assumption that it is not planning to admit women.
Douglas Browning, chief of revenue collection for the Montgomery County Finance Department, said the club will be taxed $570,000 on its 244-acre property, estimated to be worth $83 million. Last year, before the Supreme Court ruling removed the tax break, the club was billed for $40,000 in property taxes.
The club's members remain tight-lipped about their plans.
"You know our position. We're a private club," said Washington lawyer Stephen B. Clarkson, a former president of Burning Tree. "I'm afraid that's as far as we're going to go."