The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Arlington loses golf course tax-bill dispute at General Assembly

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, center, arrives in the House Chambers to deliver his State of the Commonwealth address before a joint session of the Virginia General Assembly at the Capitol in January. (Steve Helber/AP)

The Virginia General Assembly has ordered Arlington County to change the way it assesses property taxes on its two exclusive golf courses, which opponents say will cost the county about $1.5 million annually and interfere with the constitutional right of local government to set its own taxes.

The dispute, which has been percolating for years, centers on what the golf club supporters consider ridiculously high assessments and what local government considers fair market value for 630 acres of privately owned recreational property close to the Pentagon, the White House and downtown Washington.

The legislation requires Arlington to lower the $870,000 tax bill of the Washington Golf and Country Club and the $1.5 million bill of the Army Navy Country Club by assessing the private property as “open space” rather than “highest and best use” — which in densely populated Arlington would be residential or commercial.

The bill, which was approved by the House of Delegates in February, passed the Senate 27-13 on Thursday and now goes to Gov. Ralph Northam (D) for his signature.

Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), who sponsored the bill, said it was “outrageous” to value private golf courses as if they were subdivisions. Both clubs pay more taxes, he said, than the next 11 most highly taxed country clubs in Northern Virginia.

“You and I see a fairway, Arlington sees a house on the tee, three or four on the fairway and another on the green,” Hugo said. “They’re really just gouging these folks.”

Arlington officials say the golf courses are valued as “large acreage parcels” at $12 per square foot, compared to $99.75 per square foot for residential parcels in the North Glebe Road neighborhood, where the Washington golf club is located, or $72 per square foot in the area near Army Navy.

Hugo’s bill would cut the rate to about 50 cents per square foot for the combined 630 acres, the county says. Officials say the Arlington courses have higher taxes because land in the 26-square-mile county, which is entirely within the Capital Beltway, is simply more valuable than elsewhere in Northern Virginia.

“As the Realtors say, ‘it’s about location, location, location,’ ” County Board member John Vihstadt (I) told legislators earlier this week.

Northern Virginia Democrats sought to block the bill, with Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington) noting that the Virginia constitution gives the power of property assessments to local governments, and urged the Senate to stay out of the dispute.

The Virginia Municipal League also opposes the bill. Neal Menkes, the league’s director of fiscal research, noted that Hugo included both Arlington and Loudoun counties in his bill, even though Loudoun already assesses golf clubs as open space.

That’s important, Menkes said, because if only one jurisdiction was affected, the bill could be challenged as special-interest legislation, requiring a two-thirds majority to pass.

Arlington County Board chair Katie Cristol (D) said cutting the taxes for the golf clubs will cost residential taxpayers and businesses if the board raises taxes to make up the revenue.

“I’m sure Arlington will find other ways to economize other than to raise taxes,” Hugo said.

Both clubs fought their assessments and taxes for years before turning to Hugo, the House majority caucus chairman, for relief. Washington Golf Club won a $15 million reduction in taxes in 2016 and a $6 million cut in 2017. A lawsuit over both courses’ 2014 tax bills is pending.