Crooked Creek Golf Course owners want to demolish its golf course and replace it with more than 100 new homes after many months of operating the course in the red.
But the move faces opposition from homeowners in the surrounding neighborhood who believe the owners don’t have a right to get rid of the golf course, which drew many of them to pay a premium for houses there.
Several residents have incorporated the group, Friends of Crooked Creek LLC, and have hired Raleigh law firm to try to stop the development. Resident Bill Cook said 80 of the 140 homeowners have joined the group.
“We will do anything and everything we can to make sure any change to this golf course is upfront, legitimate and legal,” Cook said. “And we don’t think it is.”
Sam Ravenel, one of the golf course owners, said Raleigh lawyer Russell Killen has been retained to represent them.
“We have a right to develop,” Ravenel said.
The golf course area is 160 acres, he said. Ravenel and his business partner Tony Withers, of Cary-based engineering firm Withers & Ravenel, plan to build on 90 to 100 acres and leave the rest as open space, full of nature paths and scenic views on what’s now the course’s back nine.
“I hope that someday five years from now, this place will be a nice development with trails and be a nice place to live,” Ravenel said. “It’s going to be painful in the short term.”
He said the course didn’t rebound after the 2008 recession, but with housing heating up in the Triangle, adding homes seems like the right decision.
“We lose less money being closed than we do being open,” Ravenel said. “... And right now the highest and best use appears to be single-family residential.”
They plan to keep the course open through the Spring and close for good after the July Fourth weekend.
That’s if the residents’ legal action doesn’t derail their plans.
Cook said residents are worried about worsening traffic conditions and more crowded schools along with the loss of the golf course and an anticipated drop in home prices.
Lawyer Matthew Quinn, with the Law Offices of F. Bryan Brice Jr., represents the residents. He said his clients have a viable case.
However, North Carolina’s laws and court decisions have been silent on the neighbors’ main legal complaint – that the developers should be bound by implied promises in addition to written ones.
In real estate deals, a written contract is typically involved and includes explicit promises and conditions. But legal theory also includes implied promises.
The written covenants of the golf course’s ownership company state that the land could possibly be developed at some point, the News & Observer reported in June.
But Quinn said the developers’ subsequent actions made the implicit promise – known in legal jargon as an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing – that the golf course always would remain a golf course.
People with lots on a fairway paid more, and home-buyers were given lifetime memberships for the course, Quinn and Cook said.
“The developers enticed people to come into this neighborhood by saying, ‘You’re going to be living on a golf course,’ ... and the golf course owners made a whole lot of money by doing that,” Quinn said.
No legal precedent
North Carolina’s higher courts have yet to take a stance on the enforceability of implied covenants, like the one Quinn plans to argue on behalf of the homeowners.
“However, nationwide, there are many courts that have recognized the position that we’re taking,” Quinn said.
According to one legal expert who’s not involved in the case, both sides could have valid claims.
Michael Kent, a professor at Campbell University’s Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law, teaches property law and specializes in land use and regulation.
He said while North Carolina’s appellate courts have never ruled on implied covenants, there is a favorable ruling for a very closely related field of law – implied easements.
In the 1960s, Kent said, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that a country club could not sell the right-of-way easement for a road to be built in between two holes on its golf course.
That ruling could be persuasive for the neighbors’ case in Crooked Creek, Kent said.
But on the developers’ side, he said, is a doctrine that essentially says conflicts of this nature “are to be resolved in favor of the free use of land, rather than a restriction.”
If the case were to go to court and ultimately rule in favor of the residents, the case could end up setting a precedent.
For now, though, Kent said, “I think, as a general rule, I would agree that the law is at least unsettled.”
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran