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Golf course parking kerfuffle drives Holmes Harbor Sewer District to lawsuit
Push came to shove over a parking squabble at a Freeland golf course this week, and the dispute, along with the fate of the fairways themselves, may soon be in the hands of the courts.
At a special meeting Thursday morning, Holmes Harbor Sewer District commissioners voted unanimously to take legal action to preserve an easement they claim guarantees golf course parking at the clubhouse, a building owned by a private and autonomous limited liability corporation. Board President Stan Walker declined to delve into details of the legal argument, citing the pending litigation, but he did say the issue is no small matter.
“In essence, if we can’t use the parking lot the Holmes Harbor Golf Course will probably close,” Walker said.
“This is pretty crucial to us,” he added.
Edmonds resident Kevin Hanchett and his business partner, Mike Hooper, own the clubhouse and parking lot through Holmes Harbor Golf, LLC. Hanchett argues the district has no legal right to parking on his lot, and that solutions to the disagreement have been ignored. The current situation, he said, is one where golfers and course personnel are now regularly trespassing on his property.
“There’s a variety of approaches [to solve the problem], but what they have done is just moved in and squatted,” Hanchett said.
“It’s a violation of my property rights,” he said.
Hanchett and Hooper purchased the fairways, clubhouse and adjacent undeveloped land in 2011. The previous owners, Holmes Harbor Community Partners, closed the course in March 2010. Then last year, the business partners sold the 18-hole course to the sewer district, which then hired a private operator to run the fairways as an independent contractor.
The partnership was hoped to be a win for all, but the relationship between the entities has since soured, and the district’s decision on Thursday to take the Holmes Harbor Golf LLC to court was in the wake of a series of incidents concerning the clubhouse and parking lot, which Hanchett and Hooper still own.
It began with news about three months ago that the annual lease for the pro shop, located in the clubhouse and held by Craig Moore, the private contractor managing the golf course, would not be renewed. That lease ended July 14, and Moore has since been doing business out of a rented construction trailer next to the parking lot.
Moore claims he was never given a reason, and that he only learned of Hanchett’s decision when alerted by sewer district officials. Perplexed by the development, Moore said there’s no logic to the move and suspects Hanchett has other long-term plans for the building. Nothing else makes sense, he said.
“If it smells like a fish, it might be a fish,” Moore said.
Adding fuel to Moore’s and community suspicions about Hanchett’s motives, earlier this month large concrete blocks were placed in the western entrance to the parking lot, restricting but not blocking off access to golf patrons. Then this week, a chain was put up sometime late Tuesday night that cut off all access to the entrance.
It was quickly taken down, but for many it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The South Whidbey Record fielded a steady stream of calls from angry and concerned Holmes Harbor residents Wednesday and Thursday.
“It looks like someone is trying to shut down our golf course,” said Jo McCloskey, a Holmes Harbor resident.
“We just got our home values to start going back up,” she added.
The course’s years-long closure had a negative impact on home values, she said, but things have begun looking up. McCloskey called the course a community “asset,” and that she’d “hate to see someone ruin it for us.”
Paul Kiernan, also an area resident, said it appeared a systematic effort was underway to undermine and ultimately close the golf course. He share’s McCloskey’s concerns about home values, but added that losing the golf course would have an adverse effect on sewer rates.
“If that golf course closes, we’re back to higher sewer bills and lower home values,” Kiernan said.
“This is plain and simply wrong to do this to our community… . As a homeowner and golfer, I’m pretty pissed off,” he said.
Hanchett has a different version of events, however, and claims he isn’t the bad guy. And while he admits he has hopes for the clubhouse, he maintains he has no desire to see the golf course closed. If that were the case, doing so would be easy, he said.
“If I was trying to shut down the golf course, I’d cut off their rights to my lawnmowers and everything else,” Hanchett said.
The LLC still owns much of the equipment used to maintain the golf course, along with a maintenance building on the west side of the development. All of it is currently leased to the sewer district.
“The conspiracy theory makes no sense,” he said.
Hanchett also claims there’s more to his lease decision than critics are recognizing. Hanchett said the root of the issue was that unauthorized electrical modifications were made to the building that caused circuits to trip, impacting his other tenant, the Roaming Radish catering company and gastropub. Warnings were given, but went unheeded, he said.
“As a result, I elected not to extend his time period,” Hanchett said.
As for the parking issues, the concrete blocks were installed as a security measure for a July 4 party, and he claims no involvement with the chain put up Wednesday. He did note, however, that golf carts have been left in the parking lot and that his other tenant, the Roaming Radish, has the only legitimate right to parking.
Although some residents swear to seeing the chain put up by restaurant workers, office manager Jennifer Hajny said they are not responsible.
“I have no idea about the chain,” she said.
The business has come under fire from some who believe it is somehow involved in the escalating quarrel, but owners Jon-Paul and Jess Dowdell say their only role is to have been dragged into an ongoing dispute.
“It feels like we’re kids in the middle of a divorce,” Jess Dowdell said.
They also say they have no desire to see the golf course closed, as they only stand to benefit from a thriving business. In fact, they claim to have a “permit” to serve golfers on the fairways.
“The better they do, the better we do,” Jon-Paul Dowdell said.
The Dowdells did confirm, however, that while they didn’t have concrete designs to expand and didn’t work to push the pro shop out, they may capitalize on the vacancy and convert it to office space. Hanchett also said he would be interested in selling the building to the business, if they show an interest.
Begs the question
According to Stan Walker, Hanchett is a businessman and his interests aren’t more important than the sewer district’s, but the commissioners believe a past easement makes the issue of parking clear.
Adopted by the county commission, the easement is included in a 1992 master site plan. Note 4 of the document says the area is “for the ongoing use, operation, maintenance, and repair of the golf course, associated facilities, utilities, features and improvements. Said easement is dedicated to the benefit of the current and future owners of Holmes Harbor Golf Course.”
Walker noted that even without the legal agreement, the golf course’s origins began in the 1940s, and that parking has always been provided.
“The parking lot has been there for 60 years,” he said.
According to Hanchett, he claims there is precedent that nullifies the past easement when he purchased the course, building and parking lot. He can’t have an easement for his own use on his own properties, he said.
Hanchett also said the sewer district isn’t the victim it pretends to be. It had a three-year lease for the parking lot when it bought the fairways in 2013, but Hanchett said they exercised an option to terminate the agreement after running into trouble finding an initial operator.
“So it begs the question, why would you spend money on leased property when you have an absolute right to it already?” Hanchett said.
Also, he said proposals to rearrange the course by making its start at the maintenance building, a location where there’s room for parking, have been ignored. Furthermore, following notification that the pro shop lease would not be renewed, a wetland area was drained without proper permits. County regulators ordered the district to cease the operation until the needed documents could be acquired. Hanchett claimed it was for a new clubhouse.
“What they are doing is skipping all the rules and jumping right to the end result,” he said. “It’s incredibly irresponsible.”
The idea of a clubhouse is a source of concern for some homeowners. One of those who called The Record said they feared the structure would be built and the golf course later fail, leaving residents with the tab.
According to Walker, the district did consider the proposal to relocate the course’s headquarters to the maintenance building, but rejected the idea due to a nearby well head. The permitting and cost made it prohibitive, he said. Also, sewer districts are in the sewer business, and investing that much money into the course might raise flags with state regulators.
“We have authority to be a sewer district, not a golf company, and we’re trying to stick with that as best as possible,” Walker said.
As for the pond draining, Walker said the project isn’t as irresponsible as Hanchett claims. It may become the footprint for a future clubhouse, but it’s been eyed for removal for years due to it being a safety hazard, he said. The pond was lined with stacked railroad ties, making an edge like a pool and resulting in the deaths of several deer.
“Even baby ducks couldn’t get out without a ramp,” Walker said.
Also, several residents had complained about an inability to get lower homeowners insurance premiums due to its proximity. As for the permitting, he said the district did check with the county for needed permits and believed they wouldn’t need any. The county later deemed one was required, and an application is now pending, Walker said.
He added that a clubhouse is by no means certain, that its future hinges on the fate of the current dispute with Hanchett over parking. That’s the real issue, he said, and Hanchett’s call-out of the pond was a “red herring” and an attempt to distract from the real matter.
“The issue is whether we have an easement on the parking lot,” Walker said. “The rest of that is just baloney.”