You Are Not Taking My Golf Course Away

You see a catchy advertisement for a home on a golf course. Can the owner of the golf course later convert it to a residential subdivision?

In Riverview Community Group v. Spencer & Livingston, Case Number 88575-3 (November 20, 1014), the Washington State Supreme Court held, maybe not.

The key facts as found by the court are:

  • Charles Spencer and George Livingston formed a partnership to develop and sell property;
  • Over the next 20 years, this partnership and its successors built the Deer Meadows Golf Course Complex (including a golf course, restaurant, hotel, store, and club), platted several nearby parcels of property into subdivisions (the Deer Meadows arid Deer Heights subdivisions);
  • A plat identifying the golf course was recorded, and an image of the plat was used to help advertise the development;
  • A local newspaper quoted Spencer as saying he built the golf course complex “so it would help sell the residential lots around here,” and the lots were advertised accordingly;
  • Over the next 20 years, ownership of the unsold lots and the golf course changed forms and hands several times;
  • After Spencer passed away and after most of the lots were sold, Livingston closed down the golf course complex and began the process of platting the course into new residential lots;
  • Many of those who had bought homes in the subdivisions developed by Spencer and Livingston believed they had been promised that the golf course complex would remain a permanent fixture of their community, and they decided to purchase homes based in part on that promise; and
  • Riverview sought to impose an equitable servitude on the golf course property that would limit its use to a golf course, or if that was untenable, for other equitable relief.

What is an equitable servitude? It is akin to a covenant or written restriction imposed upon land, except it is not memorialized (written) in a deed or other record. Usually a covenant or land use restriction is contained in a deed, or for a subdivision, is contained in its Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions – CCR’s. A formal definition would be “a term used in real property law to refer to a nonpossesory interest in land, allowing the holder to make use of a property or refrain from doing something on a property. It is a promise concerning the use of land that (1) benefits and burdens the original parties to the promise and their successors and (2) is enforceable by injunction.”

In reliance upon the case of Johnson v. Mt. Baker Presbyterian Church, 113 Wn. 458, 194 P. 536 (1920), the Riverview court held that under Washington law, an equitable servitude be implied.

In Johnson, a Seattle a property developer platted and developed a new neighborhood. The developers advertised the neighborhood as a “strictly high-class residence section” that “would not permit any buildings other than residences.” Most of the deeds for lots in the neighborhood included boilerplate language limiting building to “single, detached residence[s],” which the court found increased the sale price of the lots by 15 to 20 percent. However, not all of the deeds in the development contained the boiler plate restriction. A church congregation acquired one of the apparently unrestricted lots, intending to build a church, and litigation followed. The church acknowledged that it knew the development was intended to be limited to single family homes but argued that the other homeowners could not seek to enjoin it from building a church unless it could “show some right, title, interest or easement in the so-called church lot,” which, it contended, would have to have been created in writing on the deed to avoid the statute of frauds. The State Supreme Court disagreed.

The Statute of Frauds is a general rule that an interest in land may only be created by a written instrument – a deed or similar document. Riverview and Johnson are seen as weakening the statute of frauds by creating exceptions to it. An exception to the statute of frauds that many may be familiar with is the concept of adverse possession.

The takeaway from this case is similar to other cases that I’ve posted on – be careful what you promise or say to others as they might rely on it. Another is that Washington Court’s will look beyond established legal doctrines such as the statute of frauds to “do justice.”

This blog post is offered for general information and educational purposes only. It is not offered as legal advice and does not constitute legal advice or opinion. Although I intend to keep this information current, I do not promise or guarantee that the information is correct, complete, or up-to date. You should not act or reply upon the information in this post without seeking the advice of an attorney.

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