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Will All Lake Forest Pay Onwentsia’s Taxes?

Pending court decision would take golf courses off tax roll and shift burden to all community taxpayers.

A property tax appeal by the Onwentsia Club could have far reaching effects on Lake County taxpayers and those in Lake Forest in particular as well as communities throughout the state.

As the appeal stands, country club land, 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 Conway Farms and Deerpath in Lake Forest in addition to Onwentsia as well as Shoreacres and Lake Bluff Golf Club in Lake Bluff.

“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 in summer 2013.

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.

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Old Fritz January 31, 2013 at 06:43 AM
I used to caddy at Owentsia back in the 1970s. Caddies got to play on the course on Mondays until noon. I thought it was a pretty good golf course. I can't say much about the club house as I very rarely entered the doors. There is no way that LF tax payers should foot the bill for a private club. My taxes are too high and going up, even though my property value is going down.
In Sight January 31, 2013 at 07:14 PM
Indeed.
Arthur H. Miller January 31, 2013 at 09:44 PM
Because of the larger taxpayers in LF, many being members of private clubs, the taxes on smaller properties are for example 30% to 50% lower on equivalent land and improvements than in Libertyville. "Too high" compared to what? You can put your value into zillow.com for another community or two and see this too. "Going up?" I think this has been a steady trend, while values have fluctuated over the last forty years that I've seen. Already values have bottomed out apparently and will improve. For those who have had private or micro economic challenges, of course, any taxes are too high, etc.
Arthur H. Miller February 01, 2013 at 11:26 PM
The property tax assessment system tends to incentivize the breaking up of large parcels by seeing them as an aggregate of the value of the area if divided into little lots. Lake Forest's distinctiveness lies in its open character, with buildings distributed further apart than elsewhere nearby and with open parcels like this This owner has been in place since 1895 and the use has been the same. Then it was countryside with surrounding farmland taxed at low rates. Increasingly there is pressure to tax this higher and higher even though the use has not changed, and the density even is down with no horse stables, riding stadium, etc. since 1970, and some summer housing removed.
kate February 02, 2013 at 01:23 PM
Jay- Well communicated!

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