With a critical court ruling expected any day and an even more critical election two weeks away, Club West’s defunct golf course has polarized the community of 2,600 homeowners.
Radically divergent views of the course’s future – and, more significantly, how to achieve it – have made the Foothills Club West Association board of directors and the Club West Conservancy the chief combatants in the months-long debate.
The court ruling and the upcoming HOA board election could determine how course owner The Edge and its affiliate, Community Land Solutions, will deal with the 160-acre site that it bought for $750,000 from Wilson Gee, who holds the note on the deal.
Other than to say it wants to create a park, The Edge has not disclosed much about its plan for the course after its aborted proposal 13 months ago to restore the 18-hole course and finance the project by selling three tracts to homebuilder Taylor Morrison.
Even with its park proposal, Community Land Solutions has stated on its Park at Club West website: "The number and location of homes will be determined as soon as the cost to fund the park (including amenities) is finalized."
HOA board President Michael Hinz depicts the Conservancy as a group that has obstructed constructive dialogue with both the board and The Edge.
“Everything they’ve done has been with the intention to hamstring any collaborative effort to resolve the golf course,” Hinz said in an interview. “And what they’re afraid of is the community is going to do something that they can’t control – that’s what the issue is.”
Pointing to its survey of more than 800 households last June in which 80 percent of the respondents opposed any homes on the course, Conservancy President Matthew Tyler blames the board for the course’s condition and its muddled future.
“It’s really kind of ego and hubris that’s leading them to where they are now and it’s not healthy,” he said.
Aside from five months in late 2017 and early 2018 when it had been fully restored by a hopeful owner who eventually ran out of money, the site has devolved into an Ahwatukee eyesore rivaled only by the Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course.
How its condition might change will be impacted by the outcome of the Conservancy’s lawsuit against the HOA board that seeks to nullify its assumption of the declarant rights that the board can use to have the community decide what to do with the land.
The Conservancy has accused the board of improperly assuming those declarant rights without the permission of 75 percent of Club West homeowners – the margin needed for amending the master declarant rights governing the community except the golf course.
The board contends it did nothing wrong and that by assuming the declarant rights at no cost from a onetime homebuilder, it was preventing a “bad actor” from gaining control of the course.
Superior Court Commissioner Andrew Russell has yet to rule on the Conservancy’s request to permanently prevent the board from exercising the declarant rights on the course.
Russell’s ruling could determine whether a trial even needs to be held on the same issue. Judge Daniel Kiley last November issued a temporary injunction on the board from moving forward on any plan proposed by The Edge.
But even the lawsuit could be trumped by the outcome of the board election in which four of the five board seats – except Hinz’s – are up for reelection.
Besides the incumbents, seven other homeowners are running – including four Conservancy members and a non-member described as opposed to houses on the course.
Voting is going on right now and the results are slated to be tabulated and revealed March 4.
Tyler said the outcome likely would make the lawsuit moot if some or all the incumbents lose and that a reconstituted board could open a new dialogue with The Edge in which houses are not on the table.
Hinz contends that the Conservancy’s motives are questionable and that it has distorted what he and his fellow board members have tried to do with the course and the limits of any board’s power to influence the site’s future.
“None of these people have volunteered for anything ever,” Hinz said. “What they’re doing, what they’re communicating is not about conservancy. It’s about packing the board so that they can try and implement changes to basically protect their views.”
How homes on the course might obstruct existing homeowners’ views of the desert and mountain landscape has been a central part of the debate.
Partly fueling that debate is the fact that the more than 350 homeowners whose property abuts the course paid higher lot prices for those views.
“They’re afraid that the community is going to vote to take away their views and I understand that,” Hinz said. “And I think that’s a reasonable fear.”
But he said some homeowners are elevating the primacy of their landscape views over those of others.
Tyler said the Conservancy is acting on advice of its lawyers and not engaging in any dialogue with the board.
Hinz said the board interprets the preliminary injunction as a ban on any discussions it can have with the Edge.
But he also said, “We’re under the impression that they’ve made no contribution and no effort in terms of this, quote, ‘conservancy’ effort. They’ve done nothing other than sue us.”
“The board has no interest in development. …We don’t care what the city wants. We don’t care what the golf course wants. We don’t care what the CWC wants. All we care about is what the community wants. My responsibilities are to the 2,600 homeowners, not some subset of 350 people,” Hinz added.
But Tyler noted that the Conservancy has laid out a plan for restoring the course without building homes on any part of the site. Others in the Conservancy said the survey showed that many homeowners who don’t live along the golf course also oppose houses being built on it.
Tyler also said, “Hinz took a pretty aggressive edge with us at the beginning and we said, ‘OK, they’re going to try to hammer this thing through so we’ll just move forward with our lawsuit, which really makes any meaningful communication between the groups impossible until that litigation is resolved.”
Tyler said the board and its supporters have resorted to “scare tactics,” particularly when it comes to the four Conservancy candidates in the race.
Even if those candidates win, he said, “It’s not going to be like a slam-dunk – like suddenly we’ve got a voting majority, that we turn the whole thing upside down and do terrible things to the neighborhood.”
“That’s not realistic,” Tyler added, citing the 75 percent vote requirement needed to make any significant changes in Club West.
Whether the site is restored to an 18-hole golf course or turned into a park, the availability of affordable water remains the singularly most important factor that will impact the site’s future.
When he closed the course, Gee said he no longer could afford the annual $750,000 he was paying for the city potable water used to irrigate the course.
Hinz said that he and the board have aggressively pursued every option for solving the water problem, which Phoenix officials created nearly three decades ago when they demolished a nearby treatment plant that provided reclaimed water for the course.
He said the board tried unsuccessfully to reach long-term agreements with nearby Foothills HOA to draw water from its wells. When former Foothills HOA President Bill Fautsch ran for office, he specifically ruled out any effort to make his community's water available.
Hinz also said Ahwatukee businessman Randy Leonard’s plan to build a pipeline between Club West and the Gila River Indian Community – which would have cost at least $1.2 million just to build – would have been far too costly for homeowners.
Moreover, he added, “coming down the pike in the next several years are additional five and six percent raises to our water rates. I pay as much for water as I for electricity and unless you’re living in a condo or an apartment, it’s probably true for everybody that has landscaping.”
Tyler said part of the Conservancy’s business plan for restoring a golf course involves construction of a wastewater treatment plan that could not only irrigate the golf course but all common areas in Club West. The plant would cost around $670,000.
He said that would bring the HOA’s annual water bill of around $160,000 “to zero” and overtime would generate a positive cash flow.
“You’ve got to fundamentally solve the underlying water problem and that’s a problem for the whole community. That’s what people don’t really realize,” Tyler added.
He said the Conservancy also has a “progressive plan” for the course that would include bringing in a quality restaurant “like an OHSO or Four Peaks,” opening the driving range and restore the course over the next three to five years.
“We’re terribly underserved out here,” contending a higher-end restaurant would attract residents in the area who currently have few places nearby to socialize.
Hinz asserted that the Conservancy has shown a misunderstanding of the powers of the board when it comes to the golf course, noting it is privately owned and not any different from any house in Club West. He said the city Water Services Department already has refused to provide any relief to Club West to reduce the course's reliance on potable water and that the Conservancy plan is essentially unworkable.
“The board has no legal standing in telling the golf course what to do,” he said. “The city can’t go to a restaurant owner and tell it ‘we want you to be a tire store.’”
Hinz also said the board has levied “substantial” penalties on The Edge for unspecified conditions on the course that needed to be corrected. As of now, he added, “They’ve been compliant.”
But he said that just as the board would not discuss similar actions against a homeowner for violating any HOA regulation, he and the board are precluded from disclosing any details.
Overall, he said, the board must strike a delicate balance when it comes to dealing with any owner of the golf course.
“We don’t have any skin in the game until the golf course says, ‘This is what we want to do,’” Hinz continued. “Then, we can tell them ‘no’ or we can say ‘OK, pitch it to the community.’
“And that’s what the CWC is afraid of – that The Edge will come up with something else, pitch it to the community and the community will buy into it, whatever it is,” Hinz said.
Conservancy members have said that their survey last year showed that many respondents would even be happy with the course being a walkable area with neither golf nor houses.
Unclear is whether the county could then assess whoever owns the course for back taxes since golf courses are taxed at a lower rate than other land.
That happened to Gee when he closed Ahwatukee Lakes. The county came back and demanded more than $1 million in taxes that would have been owed except for the golf course exemption.
“What we’re doing is long,” Hinz said. “It’s slow. It’s maddeningly frustrating but we think it’s prudent and in this kind of a circumstance, unintended consequences require you to be prudent. …There could be millions of dollars in tax liabilities to whoever gets the course.”