Town of Vail prevails in golf course suit
March 14, 2014
VAIL — Town officials won a big victory Thursday in a legal battle over building a new clubhouse at the Vail Golf Club. But the fight may not be finished.
District Judge Paul Dunkelman on Thursday granted the town a "summary judgment" in a lawsuit filed by golf course neighbors to stop construction of a new clubhouse. In essence, that decision stops the lawsuit in favor of the town.
Neighbors originally filed suit based in part on their opinion that the clubhouse plan violates a "covenant" that was part of the 1984 sale of the course property to the town. That covenant — essentially a binding condition of the sale — stipulated that the property be used only for golf course and open space uses. The neighbors maintained that the new clubhouse, which will also be used for events including weddings, violated that covenant.
Dunkelman's decision rejected that argument, writing, in part, that the existing clubhouse has been used for various events "not tied to golf" for more than 30 years. Dunkelman's decision also states that a clubhouse is a "'necessary incident' to a municipally owned and operated golf course."
Vail Town Council member Margaret Rogers, a retired attorney, said that might be the most important part of Dunkelman's ruling.
"He found that this will add nothing that doesn't go on there now," Rogers said.
Dunkelman also found that the clubhouse plan is essential for the town if it wants to ease the town's annual financial loss — about $100,000.
The court decision also found that the town may use funds from its Real Estate Transfer Tax in the project. Neighbors had also claimed it's improper to use tax money for the project, citing provisions of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR, amendment to the state constitution.
Approval from voters
Dunkelman also rejected that claim, noting that town voters in 2011 approved using money for a number of projects, including Gerald R. Ford Park and the golf course, using funds once raised by a lodging tax and originally intended to build a conference center. The Thursday ruling held, "It is undisputed that Defendants (the town) intend to use the funds to expand the golf clubhouse. Therefore, there is no departure from the voters' approval."
In a statement, Vail Mayor Andy Daly said the ruling validated the town's decision-making regarding the clubhouse.
"From the outset of this project, we carefully considered the land use covenant on the property to make sure the clubhouse remodel was in accordance with the covenant," Daly wrote. "The ruling means the town has been well within its authority to remodel the golf course clubhouse, and the court has also acknowledged the same."
Dunkelman's ruling means that, without an appeal, the case is finished and the town can proceed.
Sam Maslak, one of the golf course neighbors, said Friday he and other parties to the lawsuit haven't yet decided on any future action.
Maslak said he and other neighbors believe there were "mistakes" in Dunkelman's ruling, and the group wants to take some time to understand exactly what the 12-page decision says.
If the neighbors do decide to take their to the Colorado Court of Appeals, then they have a limited amount of time to do so. Denver-based attorney Chris Tole said state law sets deadlines on appeals, but only after the final order from the district court has been submitted. That hasn't happened yet.
Whether or not an appeal is filed, Maslak said the clubhouse controversy might not be settled yet. He said he's heard other residents talking about perhaps launching a petition drive for a ballot question that would again ask town voters a specific question about the clubhouse and conference center money.
Despite town officials' claims that the new structure will be limited in what kinds of events it will host, Maslak continues to call the proposed clubhouse an "events center," and says there are better places to build such a facility.
But Rogers agreed with Daly that Dunkelman's ruling vindicates the town's position on the clubhouse.
Rogers said while she expects the town's attorneys to advise the council to wait to start the project until the status of possible appeals is known, she hopes work can begin fairly quickly.
"This has already caused a two-year delay, and every time we delay, the costs go up," she said.