Watertown Golf Club is nestled in Thompson Park. Thompson Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect who ultimately designed Central Park in New York City.
Framed by oaks, maples and pines, the course looks over Spring Valley onto Dry Hill and down on the city of Watertown. The WGC is open to the public but is privately owned and has memberships.
The WGC is part of an ongoing political controversy that cost the former city manager, Sharon Addison, her job and partially contributed to turnover on City Council that removed Teresa Macaluso and Stephen Jennings. Watertown’s current mayor, Joseph Butler Jr.’s father and former mayor was one of the largest shareholders before the WGC was sold to developer Michael Lundy. Allegations of favoring the prior owners with below market rent and a plan to develop town homes on the land were just some of the issues.
Approximately half of the course is on private land and half is on land designated as public park that was deeded to the city of Watertown by the Thompson family in 1899. The WGC rents the park land from the taxpayers for $9,318 per year or $776.50 a month.
WGC’s private land is subject to property tax and is assessed at $3,795.62 an acre. Ives Hill Country Club, another privately owned golf course in Watertown open to the public, is assessed at $8,816.80 an acre for the land inside the city of Watertown, according to city records. Ives Hill is assessed at 251% more per acre than the WGC. This significant difference is fueling some of the allegations that the city is subsidizing golf course operations at the WGC.
As the WGC operated over the years, it creeped further and further onto public parkland that it did not lease. The septic system is on non-leased public land, the golf course storage was on public land until recently and an overflow parking lot is on public land. All of these encroached on public park land without compensation to the taxpayers of Watertown.
Developer Michael Lundy and City Manager Rick Finn are under considerable pressure to address these issues, though, there doesn’t appear to be any sense of urgency. Nor is the council really holding either of them accountable.
Mr. Finn has claimed several times he has a deal with Mr. Lundy. However, he has failed to hold Mr. Lundy to any real deadlines or push him to address the significant open issues. Mr. Finn should be quite aware of how “Golfgate” ended the very successful career of Mrs. Addison.
These encroachment issues have been evident to city leaders for several years and to Mr. Lundy since February. The construction season came and went without any real progress.
The city had scheduled a public hearing for Monday regarding the overflow parking lot, but canceled it to allow staff time to complete additional environmental review reports. The hearing will be rescheduled.
We encourage taxpayers to attend and ask questions like the following:
Has a study been done to determine if there is shortfall of parking for Thompson Park? If so, what is the optimal location for parking and how many spots are needed to fill the shortfall?
Will the building of the proposed parking lot be subject to a bid process? Who is paying for the installation, maintenance and liabilities of the lot? Who is the primary user of the lot?
Are all the encroaching projects going through the appropriate SEQR process to fully assess and measure impact, environmental concerns, wastewater handling, etc.?
Is the parking lot optimally located for ADA compliance?
Will the WGC get priority use of the lot during golf tournaments? Does that priority use constitute an agreement to use public parkland for a private commercial enterprise and require NYS Legislative approval?
The issues surrounding the golf course are complex and span generations. The issues have caused the loss of a seasoned and respected city manager. The issues have created a perception that the city is favoring insiders through special deals and lax oversight.
While a hearing will now not take place on the parking lot until early next year, it is important for the public to attend. Ask questions. Learn. Have a voice in how your park lands are being used.