Columbia Country Club off of Connecticut Avenue Credit: via Google Street View

By a 17-7 vote, Montgomery County’s House delegation in Annapolis on Friday voted down legislation sponsored by Del. David Moon of Silver Spring that sought to do away with a practice enabling many of the county’s private country clubs to receive a significant reduction in what they pay in property taxes.

Under a provision of Maryland law that dates back more than half a century, country clubs that do not restrict membership based on gender, race, nationality or religion are able to sign agreements with the state that result in their land being assessed at $1,000 per acre. Such assessments, far below market value in many locations, originally appeared rooted in efforts to preserve open space.

But Moon has argued that doing away with the low assessments for many Montgomery County country clubs, where member initiation fees can run upwards of $75,000, would ultimately yield an additional $10 million in annual property tax revenue to the county—once agreements now in place expire over the next decade.

“To the extent that the state has allowed country clubs to be assessed artificially low, all of the other Montgomery County taxpayers are making up that $10 million difference,” Moon said in an interview after Friday’s vote.

The bill debated by the 24-member delegation would have applied strictly to Montgomery County, with some opponents of Moon’s proposal questioning why local country clubs should be taxed on a basis that is different from that applied to other clubs around the state. In response, Moon said he now plans to focus on another piece of legislation he has introduced, which would raise the current $1,000 per acre assessment in these agreements to 1 percent of a club’s market value on a statewide basis.

“That allows for consideration of the fact that Montgomery County’s land is far more valuable than land in other counties. We get hurt by having a flat rate assessment,” Moon said afterward. His statewide legislation is scheduled for a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee at the end of this month.

Originally, Moon had hoped it would be easier to generate support for a plan targeted to Montgomery County. But that local proposal—effectively killed by Friday’s delegation vote to give it an unfavorable report—turned out to be a heavy political lift.

County Executive Ike Leggett opposed the measure in a written statement, and the County Council failed in efforts to come up with a majority position on it.  “This is a bill that is ostensibly directed to the benefit of the local government,” Del. Bill Frick of Bethesda, himself a candidate for county executive in the June 26 primary, said during the meeting. He added: “Our local government doesn’t support this, and our county executive has asked us to vote against this. The council has taken no position … I think that speaks volumes.”

Asked later about Frick’s comment and a similar assertion by Del. Kirill Reznik of Germantown, Moon said: “Individual council members are supportive of the idea—at least from my private conversations with them. Because there were so many amendments being discussed on this, they deferred action until the county delegation had come up with its final format for the bill.”

He also contended “the county executive’s written opposition to the bill was not on the substance of country club taxation—it was on the argument that Montgomery County shouldn’t be taxed differently from other counties.”

The legislation had earlier emerged from consideration by the Montgomery House delegation’s land use subcommittee in limbo, after that panel tied 3-3 on whether to recommend it favorably. The land use subcommittee, also on a 3-3 vote, failed to take a position on an amendment that would have removed language rolling back the country club agreements through legislation; it instead substituted a provision enabling the county executive and council to decide whether to take such a step.

Moon proposed that amendment in an effort to pick up support. “I would suggest we adopt this amendment and let the county figure out how to tax its country clubs,” Moon said during the debate. But the amendment was defeated by a vote of 13-11.

Although the bill would only have applied to Montgomery County, it would have required a statewide referendum because of a needed change in the Maryland Constitution—even if it left whether to act to the discretion of the executive and council.

“So we’re going to ask the whole state of Maryland to vote to let Montgomery County raise taxes on itself?” observed Del. Charles Barkley of Germantown, who is seeking a council at-large seat this year. “I just think it sets a bad precedent … for us to be asking statewide to let Montgomery do whatever they want to do on taxes.”

While the Burning Tree Club on the western side of Bethesda does not benefit from reduced assessments because it doesn’t allow female members, several other prominent country clubs in the Bethesda and Chevy Chase area do have agreements that have put the low rates of property assessment in place. Included are the Chevy Chase Club, the Columbia Country Club, the Congressional Country Club and the Kenwood Country Club. A majority of the legislators from Districts 15, 16 and 18—jurisdictions where these clubs are located—joined Frick in voting for an unfavorable recommendation of the legislation.

The three legislators from these districts who voted with Moon—Dels. Aruna Miller of Darnestown, Ana Sol Gutierrez of Chevy Chase, and Jeff Waldstreicher of Kensington—all face competitive battles as they seek other offices in the June Democratic primary. Miller is seeking the nomination to succeed U.S. Rep. John Delaney, Gutierrez is running in an eight-way race for the open seat in the council’s District 1, and Waldstreicher is vying to take over the seat now occupied by Sen. Richard Madaleno—a contender for governor.

Also supporting the bill was retiring Del. Andrew Platt of Gaithersburg, who is also a co-sponsor of Moon’s statewide legislation to raise the current $1,000 per acre assessment for country clubs now contained in current agreements.

In addition to the clubs in Bethesda and Chevy Chase, there are several other country clubs in the county that benefit from the agreements for reduced assessments, according to state property tax records and state agreements obtained by Seventh State blogger Adam Pagnucco through a Maryland Freedom of Information Act. 

These include three Rockville clubs—Manor Country Club, Norbeck Country Club, and Woodmont Country Club—as well as the Argyle Country Club in Rockville, The Members Country Club at Four Streams in Poolesville, and the Montgomery Country Club in Laytonsville.