A Maricopa County Superior Court judge remained steadfast in a long-awaited ruling issued last week that orders the owner of the defunct Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course to return the site to its original function.
For the third time in two years, Judge John Hannah made it crystal clear to The True Life Companies that it must restore Ahwatukee’s best-known eyesore to a golf course.
The rulings started when Hannah upheld the deed restrictions nearly two years ago and continued with his emphatic January verdict in a trial that a “material change’’ does not exist in the golf industry that would justify modifying the deed restrictions governing the 101-acre site.
But Hannah also rejected a request from Lakes residents that he name a special master to supervise the course’s restoration. He also refused to rule that it be restored to the same condition it was in before the water was turned off in 2013 by former owner Wilson Gee.
“For now, the remedy will be limited to a straightforward mandatory injunction requiring the owner of the Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course to operate a golf course on the property in conformity with the Declaration of Use Restriction’’ in the 1992 covenants, conditions and restrictions, Hannah wrote in a minute entry.
However, nothing in the CC&Rs, which Hannah originally affirmed in a 2016 ruling, requires that the course return to the same layout and the same condition it was in five years ago, he wrote.
“What the owner must do is to create and operate a golf course that is consistent with the reasonable expectations that The Lakes Golf Course created among the benefited home owners,’’ Hannah wrote.
Tim Barnes, attorney for Linda Swain and Eileen Breslin, welcomed the ruling and said it would apply to anyone who owns the course, whether that would be True Life, previous owner Wilson Gee or someone else.
Gee has filed on a trustee sale on True Life’s unpaid $8.2 million note, with the payment due on Aug. 21. True Life bought the property with the intent to build an “agrihood,” that would include a five-acre farm, a private school and about 270 single and two-family homes.
Just before the trial last October, it dropped the Ahwatukee Farms concept and offered to build a smaller par-3 golf course – as long as it could be ringer by the new houses.
True Life and Gee both insisted during the trial that they have no intention of re-building a course on the site, saying that it not financially viable.
Gee repeated that assertion in a recent interview with Ahwatukee Foothills News, saying the property would never be a golf course again and that housing would be the best use.
Barnes disagrees, saying that a well-run course with a deep community connection could still succeed.
Ultimately, the dream scenario would involve another buyer who would purchase the site for a lower price than True Life and build a replacement executive course.
During the trial, an expert called by Lakes residents Eileen Breslin and Linda Swain, who filed the lawsuit, said there were four or five private parties in the wings waiting to buy the course. They were not identified in by the expert during testimony.
Hannah made his ruling in a minute entry, and an injunction, which carries the force of law, is expected to follow shortly.
Not surprisingly, Swain and Breslin, praised the ruling while Aiden Berry, True Life senior vice president who testified during the trial, said in an email that he would not comment, on the advice of his attorneys.
Berry testified during the trial that True Life was counting on a majority of residents voting to change the deed restrictions to allow the residential community to get built, along with winning a zoning change from Phoenix.
In a statement, Swain and Breslin wrote that “Hannah’s ruling is the victory we’ve been looking for’’ because it prevents an owner from doing anything but operating and maintaining a golf course.
“As a result, the ruling buries the threat of a new housing development that would have overwhelmed our community.’’
They said the ruling “preserves the essential park-like character of Central Ahwatukee, for both golf courses, and means the core of our character will not be changed.”
Breslin and Swain said they are grateful Hannah ordered True Life to pay their attorney fees, “further underlining that not only has our side prevailed – but that the defendants’ behavior was wrong and requires their paying for it.
“The substance of the case is now settled. Now, it’s up to the owners to prove they will be good corporate citizens and do what the neighbors have sought and what the court has now ordered.”
Barnes was gratified by Hannah’s ruling even if he didn’t get the court master to oversee the course’s restoration.
“It’s not a hollow victory at all. The judge has sustained his earlier ruling that it has to be a golf course,’’ Barnes said. “The judge says the owner doesn’t get to decide what it look like. It has to be up to the homeowners’ expectations.’’
Although Hannah rejected Barnes’ request for a sweeping, court-monitored restoration program, he leaves open the possibility that a more detailed injunction could be issued if the owner refuses to follow the order.
“It is also much too soon to make the court the de facto manager of The Lakes Golf Course project. The prior conduct of the defendant and its predecessors warrants rigorous oversight, but prudential considerations require judicial restraint,’’ Hannah wrote.
True Life’s expert estimated that it would cost close to $15 million to restore the course.
But the expert that Barnes had recommended be appointed the special master to oversee its restoration put the cost at less than half that.