Sparing the Vashon Golf & Swim Club property in the event of the club’s closure, board members recently sold the course’s land development rights to the county, relieving the club’s debts and placing 43 acres into a permanent protected conservation easement. While a victory for open space on the island, as a condition of the sale, King County also negotiated with the club to provide the general public limited access to the 9-hole course, with scheduled tee times for non-members and the designation of a walking trail along the edge of the club.
At a glance, it’s business as usual at Vashon Golf & Swim Club today, but with the deal finalized and completed in December, board members and county officials say the easement does more than preserve the club for its member base.
“When this option with the county was presented, we considered it something worth pursuing and seeing what it all meant, and if it were to happen, what it would mean for the club,” said general manager Craig Wilcox. Two years ago, the club fell sharply behind on its property taxes, owing more than $36,000, and began assessing members to help pay the amount as the club’s outlook diminished.
“The club had definitely lost membership, was definitely financially not in a strong position, and so a lot of things were considered,” said Wilcox.
Primarily, board members looked for ways to engage and increase membership, aiming to stay operational without having to sell to a developer who could build private homes there. With Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains as the backdrop of the course, there was as much a case to preserve what could be saved as there might have been to build on it.
“When it was evident that King County wanted to pursue [the easement], the owners of the club considered that option number one at the time. That became the most attractive option,” said Wilcox.
After being approached by the board, King County found the golf and swim property to be a strong candidate for the Conservation Futures Program, which uses monies from a property tax levy to protect land from development. An application for funds to purchase the development rights was completed in April of last year requesting $900,000, the value of the property’s appraisal at the time, plus additional fees and legal costs.
“The county, in doing so, has preserved the fact that it could never become a development. Now what are the odds of anybody ever selling the club? Awfully slim. There’s no intent of ever selling the club,” said Wilcox.
Former board president Shawn Hoffman, who signed the finalized easement document in December, also remarked about the benefits to the club, but said the board did not find itself in such dire straits as initially reported.
“We operated the club last year on the assumption that we would not get the conservation easement, because you can’t assume something like that when you’re doing your budget,” said Hoffman, noting that the club had a positive cash flow in 2017. “The easement helps on a long term feasibility — it paid off all of our debt that was owed — but truly we were operating on an upward path already,” he said, adding that membership has grown since the easement was first considered. “At least on the short term it did not determine if the club stayed open or not. The past, I would say, two to three years, the club has been on a rebound.”
The club, with its proximity to the shoreline, presented an opportunity for the county to someday establish a natural corridor extending from the Maury Island Marine Park to Quartermaster Harbor. Were they to walk away, county officials determined that the resources apparent there, which range from scenery, wildlife and the health of salmon in the harbor, could all be jeopardized indefinitely as a result of construction and water runoff. If developed, the 43 acres would be able to support up to six single-family homes.
“Protecting as much green space [as possible] is a tremendous value to the people who live there and to Puget Sound,” said David Kimmett, project manager with the county’s Natural Lands Program. “Saving that golf course from development adds to the green footprint out on Vashon and Maury Island, and I believe that people feel that’s a good thing.”
As an addition to the easement, the property was found to qualify for the King County Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program. The club’s participation in the program meant that its development rights could be incentivised and sold, generating credits that could be used to build in higher density areas off-island. The county has an online TDR marketplace for interested buyers and sellers, and the program is billed as a way to encourage development outside of rural areas, which Kimmett believes is a worthwhile cause.
“That’s a benefit, that a 43-acre golf course will always be an open site, either in grass and trees or both. That will always be grass and trees, forever and ever. That has some intrinsic value, particularly to a place like Vashon. You’ll run out of real estate eventually in what you can protect,” he said.
The club has begun to meet the terms of its agreement with the county regarding expanded accessibility to the public, offering Wednesday, Friday and Sunday afternoons each week when non-members can tee off, provided they pay a green fee. Most people call and inquire about public playtime, according to Wilcox, who said that more information will be available in the club’s next Beachcomber ad campaign.
“I think that, you know, just like any other business, people may think, ‘I wonder if they’re on shaky ground, I wonder if I should join or not.’ I think the opinion out there is no, the club is not on shaky ground, and that makes people want to join. At least from our perspective here, [the easement] has had that kind of impact,” said Wilcox.
According to Hoffman, striking a balance between membership and public access is critical for the club’s overall sustainability.
“I hope that once people start playing there, they realize the benefits of membership and joining the club, so hopefully it’s a win-win for everyone,” said Hoffman. “We’re very inclusive; we want everyone to come and see what we’re all about.”
As of yet, the county has no formal plan to create a walking trail adjacent to the border of the property.
“That’s there to be developed at some point in the future. Right now, there are no imminent plans, and as for design and elements, we really do not know what that would be,” said Kimmett, emphasizing that the deal had only just closed last winter.
The county is also intending to enter talks with the Roads Division, which owns a sizable parcel of land across from the club, and negotiate for its transfer to the Department of Natural Resources and Parks. Doing so would extend the present boundaries of the easement, which is surrounded on all sides by Dockton Rd., 75th Ave SW and SW 248th St. No movement has occured in that land transfer so far according to Doug Williams, spokesperson for the department.
Wilcox believes there is value in a place that can guarantee it’s here to stay.
“I think not only did it benefit the club but it also benefited Vashon islanders. There is a lot of belief out there that if the club were to go away it would hurt the island as a whole,” he said.