Warren County Circuit Court Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr. has ordered the addition of court representatives for both unidentified heirs of the family that donated land for the county’s first golf course in 1938 and for the citizens of this community to whose benefit that land was donated.
At issue is a County petition for a declaratory judgment to allow it to remove golf as a use on the 62-acre Carson parcel the County acquired in 2005. That parcel contains what is now known as the Front Royal Golf Club. The Carsons donated the land in memory of their son, a former student at Randolph-Macon Academy in Front Royal who died prematurely in his early 20’s around the time of the gift.
“The Court will appoint one guardian ad litem for the unknown heirs of William and Agnes Carson and one guardian ad litem for the citizens of the Town of Front Royal and the County of Warren,” Whitten explained on June 29.
However, in a late-breaking development those “unknown heirs of Agnes H. Carson and William E. Carson” listed as “Whereabouts unknown” in the original county court filing, are no longer unknown.
County Administrator Doug Stanley told Royal Examiner on Tuesday, July 3, that he has made contact with some Carson descendants – and they have provided two letters of support of the county proposal that will be included in the court filing.
So it seems the case will not require one of those proposed guardian ad litems for persons or entities “unknown”.
As originally presented, the Warren County Board of Supervisors is listed as the petitioner against both the unknown heirs of the Carsons and the Front Royal Country Club (formerly known as the Recreational Center of Front Royal), the latter which were the original names of the managing entity for the golf club created by the Carson’s 1938 gift to the community.
A municipal ‘money-pit’
The fact the municipal golf club created in the wake of the 2005 acquisition of the riverside property has increasingly become a money pit has long been a sore point for some of the county’s elected officials (and I thought maybe they just didn’t like the name).
Fork District Supervisor Archie Fox has become increasingly vocal about the deficit the county has carried annually to keep the course open. County Administrator Stanley estimated an average $110,000 annual deficit county taxes have gone to cover over the past five years.
Stanley said the club supported itself for the first several years of county ownership – “We were the low cost alternative” – but has increasingly suffered financially in recent years as golf courses around the nation have struggled to meet rising costs and competition.
But as admitted in the County filing for a declaratory judgment to be allowed to remove golf as a use of the property, not only did the Carson family specify golf as a use to be maintained as a condition of the 1938 gift of the property; but a condition of the 2005 management agreement the County signed upon its purchase of the land ALSO specifies that “[t]he current nine (9) holes for golf located on the 62 Acre Parcel, will be used and maintained only for golf.”
However, the County contends that changing times make the golf designation obsolete.
Under the heading “The Restrictions on the Property are no Longer Needed” the County states 1/ “At the time of the conveyance of the Carson Property, there were no other golf courses in Warren County, and there was a need for a public golf course”; and 2/ “Currently there are four other golf courses in Warren County including Sly Fox Golf Club (18 holes), Blue Ridge Shadows Golf Club (18 holes), Bowling Green Country Club (36 holes), and Shenandoah Valley Golf Club (27 holes).”
After noting that the Front Royal Golf Club is a 9-hole course that can be played as an 18-hole course by using varying tee positions, the county gets to its bottom line: “Membership at Front Royal Golf Club has declined since the County took over in 2005, and the costs are increasing to maintain the Golf Club to remain competitive with the other courses in the County,” adding that, “The Board has discussed closing down the Golf Club for the past several years during the budget process since the Golf Club has operated at a financial loss for the past several years.”
The Warren County Board of Supervisors and county staff have looked into outside management of the golf course for at least a year. In its filing for the declaratory judgment allowing golf to be removed as a use on the property, the County notes that in 2017 it got one response to a Request for Proposals (RFP) seeking an outside individual, group or business “to take over operations of the Golf Club through a lease agreement … but was not able to come to an agreement with the offeror.”
Asked if money had been the bottom line in that failure to come to terms, Stanley said, “I think it is fair to say that the parties could not come to agreeable terms – what they wanted for what we were giving up didn’t mesh.”
Following the collapse of that negotiation, the county filing states it issued another RFP that left future recreational usage of the property on the table. “I think ideally we have sought a way that would maintain management of the golf course but it just has not happened,” Stanley points out.
And so it was with the response to that second, open-ended property management RFP. The county cites receipt of a proposal in response to that second RFP “that would entail permanently closing the golf course and creating a park open to the public on the Property which could include but is not limited to walking, horse and biking trails, river access, a boat landing, and a field for recreational purposes.”
As a final nail in the golf coffin, the County pleading states, “The former golf course’s cart paths would be open to the public, and numerous trees would be planted in the former fairways and greens.”
OUCH – and I don’t even play golf.
But on the bright side, Stanley points out the County maintains an easement with Allegheny Power that connects the Carson parcel with the 19-acre Rockland Park that has a similar mixed-recreational-use profile – “And this will give us riverfront property for those uses,” Stanley points out.
Did the County do all it could?
We asked the county administrator to address several questions raised by some Front Royal Golf course users over the past year. Those questions included whether county employees were allowed to play the course for free and if any revenue generated by the property was diverted to other County uses.
Stanley said neither was the case. He estimated $350,000 being collected over the 3-1/2-year Dominion Power Plant construction project from property rentals.
“Since we took over management in 2005, we sold off a small portion and some easements for the new power lines, we leased part of the excess property to Dominion for a lay-down area for the power plant construction, and we have leased two smaller areas to contractors. Every dime received either repaid the County for paying off the Club’s debt, for capital improvements, or to meet the bottom line of the club.”
Stanley did observe that in the past golf club staff or the club manager have been allowed to play for free (a situation he believes typical at any golf course), but other than that, “All County employees, myself included, have to pay to use the club. For a couple years we did offer ANY Warren County resident one free play at certain times.”
But the “free” teaser did not work to attract the necessary number of members to support the Front Royal Golf Club financially.
And so today the county government is seeking court relief to cut loose what has become a financial drain on it and its taxpayers. And it would appear another piece of the county’s history will succumb to changing times and changing circumstances.
But as Stanley notes, the gift of the Carson property will be maintained to recreational uses for the community in memory of their son, who was lost too young 80 years ago.
From the Front Royal Golf Club website:
“One of Virginia’s oldest, continuously operating golf courses continues to be one of the best golf values in all of the Shenandoah Valley. Under the operation, direction, and management of Warren County, Front Royal Golf Club’s 1938 nine-hole layout features dual tee boxes to create a true 18-hole feel.
“Front Royal has the old Scottish links-style feel that requires accuracy not length. Challenges come from small undulating greens and deep bunkering. Four holes border the Shenandoah River, more than any course in Virginia, with none more dramatic than the par 5 seventeenth hole that features a tee shot along the river’s edge. Front Royal Golf Club brings back the 4-hour round of golf. It’s a fun and excellent test of golf you will surely enjoy.
“The facility was originally constructed in 1938 by the Civilian Conservation Corps on land donated by William Carson with the course built to his design. The current club house, built in 1998 to replace the original rustic CCC clubhouse lost in the flood of 1996. It hosts a snack bar, commercial kitchen and banquet hall.”
Somehow it just seems a shame.