The Maryland Attorney General's Office is seeking to revoke the special tax privileges of Manor Country Club in Rockville after finding evidence that the club illegally discriminated against a woman who applied for full membership last year.
The application of Amy Schmidt Hamilton, 27, of Olney, was rejected by the club's all-male governing board.
In an 11-page statement of charges sent to the club Friday, the Attorney General's Office said the decision to deny full membership to Hamilton was "tainted with arbitrariness" and based on reasons that have "not barred the routine approval of male associates as active members, even those with records of delinquent payment" of club bills.
The Attorney General's Office has asked for a hearing before an administrative law judge to determine whether the country club should keep its preferential tax assessment.
In rejecting Hamilton's application, the board said it needed more time to evaluate her financial stability and "past demeanor as an associate member" -- even though Hamilton has an annual salary in six figures and has been attending the club with her father, who is a member, for the past 10 years without any problems, said Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch.
A club manager declined to comment on the allegations yesterday and referred calls to the club's board president, William Aitken, who could not be reached. Coleman Plecker, the club's golfing professional, said the accusations are "news to us. We do have lady members here . . . . I can't imagine why we are in violation."
In August 1989, shortly before Hamilton applied for an associate or part membership, Manor Country Club had 1,108 members, 100 of them women, according to Zarnoch. Among the club's 342 full members, six were women.
Hamilton was the first woman to apply for and win associate membership to the club by virtue of her father's membership. Before her application, the club's bylaws limited associate membership to the sons and sons-in-law of members. Hamilton also was the first woman to try to upgrade her associate membership to full voting status.
The six women with full memberships had attained them by seeking sponsors and putting their names on a waiting list, Zarnoch said. "We've had no complaints about that particular route" to attaining full status, he said.
Zarnoch said the attorney general's action focuses on the difficulty women encounter when they try to make the jump from associate member to full status.
"I'm surprised that in this day and age, something like this could happen," said Hamilton, a sales representative for Spacesaver Systems Inc., of Wheaton.
Under a 1986 Maryland law, long-standing property tax breaks that are granted to country clubs for preserving open space can be revoked if the club's membership policies violate the state's anti-discrimination laws. According to a 1981 preferential tax agreement with the state, the Manor property, valued at $10.5 million, is assessed at $1.1 million. It is not known how much the country club would be forced to pay in higher taxes if it loses its preferential assessment.
Another Montgomery County country club, Burning Tree Club in Bethesda, unsuccessfully challenged the 1986 law, as the only one of 22 private clubs with such a tax break to maintain an all-male membership policy. It has been charged more than $1.2 million in back property taxes.
According to the attorney general's request to revoke the Manor Country Club's tax break, 24 male associate members applied for active membership from July 1, 1985, to Sept. 12, 1989. All but one, who had "chronic delinquency" in bill payment, were accepted. Another man was granted full membership despite a record of delinquent accounts with the club, according to the attorney general's statement of charges. The initiation fee for active members at the time of Hamilton's application in August 1989 was $10,000, Zarnoch said; it is now $15,000.
"This woman has a six-figure income and she is 27 years old," Zarnoch said. "Any objective look at her finances would say she is definitely qualified for full membership."
Staff writer Dan Beyers contributed to this report.