2006: An eminently scary project

The start of a golf season in the Northeast usually is a time of joy for those who have shivered through yet another long winter.

But that pleasing sensation is being tempered for private club members this year by the astounding moves of a tony Long Island town to seize the exclusive Deepdale Golf Club through eminent domain.

In fact, that action, which was instigated by the mayor of North Hills, N.Y., the burg in which Deepdale is situated, sent a chill through the golf club world as cold as anything that blows out of the Canadian north in January. Some of that stems from general concern over what will happen to Deepdale, a venerable retreat founded in 1926 that has counted the Duke of Windsor, Bob Hope, Oleg Cassini, Tom Brokaw and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg as members.

But there also is legitimate worry of the precedent it would set and the possibility that other municipal demagogues will attempt similar stunts in their realms.

Legal experts say the move by Marvin Natiss, the North Hills mayor, is a long shot at best. That’s surprising to some observers who have worried that a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kelo v. New London, made it much easier for municipalities to take private land via eminent domain. But Kelo decrees that local governments trying to exercise such power must be able to demonstrate they are acting for a valid “public purpose” and may not take private property solely to benefit “a particular class of identifiable individuals.”

While flawed and overreaching, the Kelo decision acknowledges some parameters to which governmental bodies must adhere. Kelo allowed the state of Connecticut to condemn private land in a “distressed municipality” that had endured “decades of economic decline.” It also spoke of the importance of there being an “integrated development plan” to revitalize the area in question.

Those criteria might have fit the situation in the coastal city of New London, the subject of the Kelo case, but they hardly apply to North Hills. The village is by no means distressed, nor has it suffered from economic decline. And the mayor has yet to reveal an integrated development plan of any sort.

Moreover, some have noted the irony – dare I say hypocrisy – that Natiss is the past president and still a board member at Old Westbury Golf & Country Club, located five miles from Deepdale, in Manhasset. That prompted at least one Deepdale member to suggest that if Natiss wants to force open a private club to the public, he’d be better off trying it at Old Westbury, which also offers swimming and tennis.

While the legal odds might favor Deepdale members, that does little to ease the emotional and financial stress of the proposed land grab, or soothe the sense that they possibly could be victims of the sort of heavy-handed harangues once rampant in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany.

I mean, how would any golfer feel if politicians threatened to snatch the land on which his club is built for no good reason?

Maybe he could understand the desire to build something on that property of a truly meritorious nature, such as a children’s hospital or veterans’ center – and only after all other options have been explored. But keeping it as a golf course for the 5,000-odd residents of one of the wealthiest villages in America is a mindless extravagance, particularly when you consider that North Hills has another country club with an 18-hole golf course within its boundaries. North Hills residents also have access to plenty of public courses in the immediate vicinity, including one only three miles away that is owned and operated by the town of North Hempstead.

And how would club members like facing the prospect of massive legal bills as their retreat girds for what could well be a ridiculously expensive fight over something so patently unfair yet so deeply important?

Wise men say there always are lessons to be learned from difficult situations, and the Deepdale case is no exception. Perhaps most critical for members of other private clubs is understanding the importance of maintaining good community relations with the towns in which they are based. Sources close to the battle in North Hills say it has been fueled in part by egos on both sides and the acquisitive mayor’s sense – valid or not – that Deepdale did not treat him with the requisite respect or seriousness when his interest in exercising eminent domain first came to light. Apparently, the issue became very personal after that, and destructively so.

It makes sense, then, for club leaders always to try and deal fairly and calmly with local politicos – even those with massive chips on their shoulders and rocks in their heads.

Private clubs need to come to the defense of their Deepdale brethren in any way they can. They should speak publicly about the inanity of the town’s move. Pepper governmental representatives about the dangers of allowing such baseless seizures. Hold golf outings to help raise funds for a legal defense against the land grabbers. File “friend of the court” briefs on behalf of the club. Offer to help defeat the North Hills mayor in his next election by supporting his opponent (assuming, of course, that opponent is not a supporter of the mayor’s move).

Becoming active in this case makes eminent good sense, and though most private clubs prefer to stay below the radar at all times – and at all costs – this is not the time to go silent. This sort of seizure could be directed at any facility, and clubs that stand together stand a much better chance of beating back such challenges, in the courts as well as in the courts of public opinion.

Plus, the folks at Deepdale could use a friend or two at the moment, especially as the mayor shows no signs of giving up his fight.

Roughly a half-century ago, New York routed part of the Long Island Expressway through the northern part of Deepdale’s original layout, which had been designed by Charles Blair Macdonald and his protégés, Seth Raynor and Charles Banks. The government sought to acquire that land through the power of eminent domain, and club members dutifully complied, getting Dick Wilson to lay out a new 18-hole course on a nearby estate that once belonged to W.R. Grace. The club then sold off what remained of their old course. They may not have been happy with that action, but at least they understood the state’s rationale.

This Deepdale land grab, however, defies comprehension.






















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