The Scarsdale, N.Y. club has had a long-running dispute with the owners of an adjacent $3.7 million home who have sued over errant shots falling into their property and recently secured several rulings in their favor. “If we reach a point where clubs have to redo tees and holes [because of similar complaints], it could become a real financial burden,” says one golf industry executive.
LoHud.com, the website for The Journal News Media Group for New York state’s Lower Hudson Valley (comprised of Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties) recently featured extensive coverage of the litigation concerning stray golf balls that is creating increased worry not only among clubs and courses in that region, but around the country.
The issue has been brought to a head through recent developments related to a lawsuit in 2010 filed by Leon and Gail Behar, who own a $3.7 million home near the second tee of Quaker Ridge Golf Club in Scarsdale, N.Y. The Behars’ original lawsuit sought a preliminary injunction against the club to stop play or make suitable changes that would avoid stray shots entering their property, LoHud.com reported, in addition to suing the developer from whom they bought their site in 2007, claiming the risks of building there because of the proximity to the Quaker Ridge course were not adequately disclosed.
Quaker Ridge took steps to try to address the problem by erecting nets and stands of trees, LoHud.com reported, and also initially secured favorable rulings on the lawsuit from judges who rejected the plaintiffs’ claims and ruled that those with homes adjacent to golf courses have to accept the possibility of occasionally encountering stray golf balls.
The Behars have pressed the issue, however, claiming there is nothing “occasional” about the risks posed by where they live in relation to the Quaker Ridge course. In June 2014, a panel of New York state appellate court judges reversed the lower-court decisions, noting that Quaker Ridge failed to sufficiently reduce the number of golf balls landing on the plaintiffs’ property, rendering it uncomfortable and inconvenient.
An injunction was issued that has forced the club to close its second tee and move the tee area some 115 yards forward to the edge of the fairway, directly across from the Behar property, LoHud.com reported. The appellate court also cleared the way for the Behars to seek damages for loss of property use.
Quaker Ridge filed a motion to re-argue the case, LoHud.com reported, suggesting that the judges overlooked a number of relevant factors in reversing the decision. The appellate court denied that motion on September 16 and also ruled against the inclusion of a submission by the Metropolitan Golf Association, which represents 565 clubs and courses in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, that was designed to show how a ruling against Quaker Ridge would have broad implications for clubs and courses throughout the region.
“We are obviously disappointed by the appellate court’s ruling, but we intend to continue pursuing all legal options to protect our rights and those of other public and private golf courses,” Marc Friedman, President of Quaker Ridge GC, said in a statement.
The case now moves back to Westchester County (N.Y.) Supreme Court, LoHud.com reported, where issues such as damages will be finalized. Quaker Ridge has the option to appeal to a higher court at that point, and club officials were to discuss the matter over the weekend of September 20, LoHud.com reported.
C&RB reported in July on the golf industry’s growing concerns over the possible implications of the Quaker Ridge case (http://clubandresortbusiness.com/2014/07/30/claims-stray-golf-balls-constitute-trespassing-gaining-traction-nca-warns/). The LoHud.com report noted that in recent years, Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. and Patriot Hills Golf Club in Stony Point, N.Y. have also been forced to address issues related to golf ball incursions. Patriot Hills, a municipal course, responded to a neighbor’s lawsuit by redesigning its sixth hole in 2011. The modifications included lower tee boxes and the addition of native grasses down the right side of the hole to discourage golfers from using a driver.
“If Quaker Ridge doesn’t prevail in court, the number of private and public courses sued by neighbors could increase,” the LoHud.com report said. “And taxpayers might be on the hook if public courses such as Saxon Woods [Golf Course, in Scarsdale, N.Y.] are one day forced to make alterations.”
The LoHud.com report included comments from Jay Mottola, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Golf Association. “I think the negative impact of this becoming a precedent would be significant,” Mottola said. “Property owners might feel empowered if [the Quaker Ridge] injunction stands—and if we reach a point where clubs have to redo tees and holes, it would become a real financial burden. Some do not have the resources to deal with this.”
LoHud.com’s report also included comments from Julius W. Cohn, an attorney from White Plains. N.Y. who is representing the Behars. Cohn maintained to the website that Quaker Ridge knew that Lot 4 of the development approved in 1999 by the Village of Scarsdale—the lot on which the Behars’ house now sits—would become a resting place for numerous errant golf balls. The club should have purchased the property or done more at the outset to warn prospective buyers, Cohn said.
“The place is regularly bombarded,” he noted, suggesting that his clients had to join Old Oaks Country Club in Purchase. N.Y. because they couldn’t use their own backyard.
Cohn also took Winged Foot Golf Club to court when a tree removal project on the sixth hole of the East Course exposed a neighbor’s backyard, LoHud.com reported. That dispute ended in 2008, when the Mamaroneck club bought the plaintiff’s home.
Cohn is also currently representing another neighbor of a club in Westchester County in a ball-incursion dispute, LoHud.com reported. He declined to identify the club or the client, but said no lawsuit has been filed.
Bonnie Briar Country Club in Larchmont, N.Y. was recently contacted by a lawyer, according to a member who asked to remain anonymous, LoHud.com reported. And Sunningdale Country Club in Scarsdale, N.Y., in an effort to deal with a recent complaint from a neighbor, has requested that members and guests “club down” on the 11th hole, so no tee shot travels more than 200 yards, the website reported.
Quaker Ridge GC has expanded its own legal team because of the dispute with the Behars, LoHud.com reported. While the club would not disclose to the website the amount that it has paid out to date for legal fees and course modifications, “numerous sources indicate the cost of this battle [for the club] is already north of $400,000,” LoHud.com reported, “[and] that number could increase exponentially if damages are granted.”
“We have been in existence for 100 years and have always had a great relationship with our neighbors,” said Friedman, the club President. “Even though the Behars’ own conduct is creating the situation we face, we’ve been cooperative and proactive in working with them to resolve their concerns, and that is what makes this so disappointing. It’s simply unfair to place the burden entirely upon the courses to remove virtually any risk of golf balls landing on their property.”
For the better part of nine decades after Quaker Ridge’s A.W. Tillinghast-designed course opened in 1918, LoHud.com reported, each slice off the second tee fell harmlessly in the woods along the right side of the fairway. When the Village of Scarsdale approved the sale of the land to a developer in 1999, officials from the club moved to secure and record a tree preservation plan, and also lobbied for a larger-than-normal setback, knowing that golf ball incursions might become an issue. The need to adhere to the specific plan on file was attached to the property’s deed.
The tree preservation plan secured by Quaker Ridge singled out a pair of mature trees, indicating they were integral to the defense of the neighboring property, LoHud.com reported. One of those trees came down in a storm in June 2008, destroying a number of adjacent trees when it fell. The other was removed with approval from the Village of Scarsdale when the Behars constructed a pool.
But Leon Behar told LoHud.com that neither tree was part of the natural screen on the property line.
Now there is a 40-foot net that was erected by the club (after the Scarsdale Manor homeowners association objected to a higher net), along with a stand of 20 maple trees planted by the club. Additionally, LoHud.com reported, the Behars planted a row of spruce trees on their side of the fence.
Still, Leon Behar told LoHud.com, the property is still assailed by not only an unacceptable quantity of errant shots, but also some that pose the threat of serious injury. “Our home is hit repeatedly,” Behar said. “Two workers on the property were hit in the past. They have come close, but thank God, nobody in my family has been hit, and that’s because we stay clear.”
The actual number of errant shots is very much in dispute, LoHud.com reported. Quaker Ridge hired an individual to count the number of balls leaving its property and the Behars hired a private investigator to count the number of balls that landed in their yard.
According to a count by Quaker Ridge, 97 balls were hit over the property line between May 7 and June 28, 2011. But Behar contends that count is off by a wide margin.
“I can’t tell you how many balls the net has stopped, but I can tell you it hasn’t made the situation livable,” said Behar, who confirmed to LoHud.com that he did offer to sell the home to Quaker Ridge in the early days of the dispute.
In all, Westchester County is home to nearly 50 public and private courses, and most of them wind through neighborhoods, LoHud.com reported. That often leads to complaints from nearby residents about stray balls, and the standard practice is to pay for broken windows or damage caused by errant shots.
“At the end of the day, it’s hard for any court to hear that kids are out playing while golf balls are coming in,” Brad Steele, Vice President of Government Relations and General Counsel for the National Club Association, told LoHud.com. “Clubs do have an opportunity to win these cases, but we advise them to do their best to avoid legal proceedings altogether.”
In the case of Quaker Ridge, it was noted, if there is not another reversal in court, Quaker Ridge might not only have to just redesign a hole, it would have to alter a classic hole by a famed course architect that’s remained largely unchanged for nearly 100 years. It would be a significant change that would alter the intended target line, LoHud.com reported.
“Quaker Ridge is one of Tillinghast’s most famous designs,” said Bob Trebus, a member of Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey and president of The Tillinghast Association told the website. “It would be a shame to alter his design.That’s like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.”
In addition to reporting on the latest developments in the Quaker Ridge case, LoHud.com writer Mike Dougherty also wrote a separate column in which he identified himself as a golf enthusiast who has “wide-eyed appreciation” for historic golf venues like Quaker Ridge’s Tillinghast course.
“Changing the design of this famous A.W. Tillinghast gem [because of the dispute with the Behars] would be a crime,” Dougherty said. “It’s darn close to original. Any movement of the tee box would significantly alter the character of the hole, which opens a particularly difficult stretch on a course that ranks among the nation’s best.
“I’m not going to minimize [the Behars’] constant fear,” Dougherty said in his column. “Errant golf balls in any number present a clear and present danger.
“Maybe the club should’ve been immediately proactive in mitigating the issue after the Village of Scarsdale, and the developer failed miserably to make prospective buyers aware,” Dougherty continued. “But the fact is, measures are in place to limit golf ball incursions.
“Golfers on the left side of the 40-foot screen have to recognize that game-improvement technology is putting more homes at risk,” he wrote. “Neighbors on the right side of the net have to realize that members trend more toward Charles Barkley than Bobby Jones when it comes to swinging a golf club.”
Dougherty then quoted a “Westchester [County] club manager who asked to remain anonymous” and who said: “We’re all surrounded by expensive homes. And, as a rule, a high percentage of our golfers suck.”
If the Behars’ objections are taken “a step further,” Dougherty wrote in his column, “What’s to prevent a neighbor who is unhappy with the noise and traffic after moving next to a school from suing? Isn’t that a nuisance? Have you ever seen a foul ball from a Little League game break a windshield? At some point, common sense needs to prevail.”
Dougherty then proposed this solution in his column: “The judges [ruling on the lawsuit] have to come play Quaker Ridge, then visit the Behars and enjoy a backyard cookout. Anyone who truly believes the members are willfully disturbing the family’s peace of mind hasn’t looked at the protective measures that are in place.
“The [Behars’] backyard is situated about 115 yards from the middle of the second-hole tee box,” Dougherty noted. “Quaker Ridge has planted a row of maples on its side of a 40-foot screen, and the Behars have planted a stand of evergreens. Inducing the kind of towering slice needed to carry [this] barrier requires a fair amount of power, and I cannot believe the situation hasn’t improved to at least a tolerable level.
“Quaker Ridge is historic and has to be preserved as it stands,” Dougherty concluded in his column. “If there’s any room on the rope in this legal tug of war, I’m pulling heart and soul for Quaker Ridge.”