By: Rob Harris
The website for Washington’s Chewelah Golf and Country Club describes the facility as “a magnificent, open to the public, 27 hole golf course… carved into majestic conifers, boasting plush bent-grass greens, manicured fairways, and four sets of tees to challenge any skill level.”
Omitted from the website description, however, is a reference to the fact that, to create sufficiently wide playing areas, the golf course incorporates into play the front yards of the homes that abut the fairways.
Therein lies the predicament that recently confronted the Washington Court of Appeals, as it wrestled with a lawsuit brought by the club against one of the neighbors who was refusing to permit his yard to be so (ab)used.
In support of its position, the club referenced a covenant that provided as follows:
“Front yard landscaping on all lots facing or bordering the fairway shall be restricted to grass, trees and flowers. The golf playing area of said front yard area shall be marked and any golf balls entering the lot beyond the marked area shall be out of bounds and not played by the golfer.”
Notwithstanding the covenant, in 2007, homeowner Wilbur “Woody” Williams, who owns three lots that border on the first and second fairways, “began having conflicts with golfers hitting balls onto his property. This conflict was temporarily resolved, but later escalated. In September 2010, [the club] filed suit against Mr. Williams.”
The club presented the court with a declaration from its president that the course installed out-of-bounds markers 35 feet inside homeowners’ property lines, and that “without this in-play area, the fairways of the old nine would be inappropriately narrow.”
Another long time member explained how the club, just like Goldilocks testing the three bears’ furniture, concluded that 35 feet was “just right.” As he described the process, “starting in 1981, the [club] experimented with different distances for the out-of-bounds markers. First, the markers were set at 25 feet onto adjacent lots, but the team determined that the width of the fairway was too narrow for play. Next, the team tried 50 feet, but decided that the in-play area was too close to residences. Finally, the team selected 35 feet as the best distance.”
Consistent with viewing the 35 foot area as part of the course, the club’s landscaping crew maintained the 35 foot strip of land in neighbors’ yards, although, in deference to the conflict with Mr. Williams, “after 2010, mowing Mr. Williams’s lots had been modified to minimize risk to the grounds crew.”
Presented with this evidence, the trial court entered summary judgment in the club’s favor. The court’s order “prohibited Mr. Williams from interfering with persons engaged in golf play on his lots, not to maintain his landscaping as to constitute a barrier to golf play or course maintenance within the golf play area, and not to move or handle golf balls that are in the golf play area.”
On appeal, however, the court found the facts to be insufficiently definitive to warrant judgment in the court’s favor without a trial. The court referenced disagreements as to whether Mr. Williams, prior to purchasing the property, had clear notice about the fact that his yard would be subject to golf course use.