A property tax appeal by the Onwentsia Club of Lake Forest could have far reaching effects on Lake County taxpayers and those in Highland Park in particular as well as communities throughout the state.
As the appeal stands, country club land like that belonging to Old Elm, Exmoor, Bob O'Link and Northmoor Country Clubs, including improvements such as clubhouses, would be granted open space status and therefore would receive a zero assessment.
“The public needs to know what benefits these organizations, country clubs, are getting. Should we be providing tax relief for them?” Lake County Assessor Martin Paulsen said. He said the ruling could result in a significant shift in the tax burden.
The North Shore suburbs have numerous golf courses and country clubs including Highland Park’s Northmoor Country Club, Bob-O-Link Golf Club, Exmoor Golf Club and Old Elm Club.
“Somebody will have to pick up this money,” Ela Township Assessor John Barrington said. “It doesn’t go away; it just gets redistributed.”
Barrington explained that country clubs, with clubhouses and restaurants, could apply for a tax exemption if the ruling holds. In Ela Township, some clubs filed an appeal last year in anticipation of the ruling.
Onwentsia Tax Appeal Timeline
The Onwentsia case began in 2006 when the county changed the open space valuation policy for golf courses to assess improved portions, such as a clubhouse or swimming pool, for their fair market value for residential use. Prior to 2006, golf courses were granted open space status, but improved areas were assessed at a market value of $1,000 per acre, according to the Appellate Court document on the case.
According to a timeline provided by Lake County Assessor Paulson:
- In 2006, four Lake County golf clubs appealed their assessments and the Lake County Board of Review upheld the valuation changes.
- Two golf courses appealed to the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board (PTAB).
- In 2010, PTAB upheld the Lake County Board of Review decision.
- Onwentsia appealed the PTAB decision in the Appellate Court.
- In June 2011, the Appellate Court did not agree with the decisions of PTAB and the board of review and vacated the decision, sending it back to PTAB
- In March 2012, PTAB issued a decision that all of Onwentsia’s improvements, with the exception of a dormitory, would receive a zero assessment.
- Arguments in the Appellate Court are expected to take place this summer.
Barrington explained that if the ruling holds, golf clubs can apply for a refund of their taxes. He said some counties have already given golf courses a zero assessment in anticipation of the ruling, so they don’t have to refund the taxes.
State Legislation Could Fix Issue
State legislation could prevent the property tax burden being shifted to residents. Paulson said there is a legislative effort, which was started in the lame duck session, to clarify open space status as it refers to buildings on open space.
“There are properties that should be valued at fair cash value, as well as the land they sit on,” Paulson said.
“It’s troubling because there are a lot of different types of property, with open space status, that are not golf courses; some of them have buildings that are being valued for tax purposes,” said Lake County Assessor Martin Paulson.
“People need to be a little outraged and to reach out to legislators so they can fix it, if they provide clarification in the language,” Barrington said.