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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Jay January 30, 2013 at 03:35 PM
Sorry to disappoint you Jeff. Not the case - but how does it help municipalities in general if we keep letting you skate on the taxes owed. Put the taxes on the other guys. And your open lands concept is a ridiculous argument. Put a bunch of chemicals and pesticides that runoff into the waterways. Then go out and play a game on it. I am sure that the Open Lands Committee might take offense to your claims - of course, if they aren't members of your club. Just pay your taxes.
Gary January 30, 2013 at 03:58 PM
I have a nice big yard. I keep it looking clean and well kept, so I can make the claim that it adds value to the community as well. Like the club, my yard is for the private use of me and my guests. Although I do not charge my guests for the use of my yard, I am willing to reconsider that policy if I can avoid paying property taxes. Where do I apply to have my land qualify as untaxed open land?
Marie Donaldson January 30, 2013 at 05:38 PM
Thank you Jay for your comment. It is true that you but point out the glaringly obvious, we thank you for making clear what so many of us are thinking, but too utterly astounded to communicate.
Marie Donaldson January 30, 2013 at 05:46 PM
Oh my dear Jeff, I think perhaps you may have lost sight of the key point. That those who pay taxes do so to pay for what they have access to. If there are secret plans to turn Onwentsia into a municipal resource deserving of tax payer support, please do share the good news with everyone right here!
Janet Olsen January 30, 2013 at 06:17 PM
With all due respect, Onwentsia is an exclusive private club. It is all but hidden from public view and access. Were it's property to be sold and developed it would be for huge sums and be developed as luxury real estate which would not harm the property values that much. Rest assured that hell will freeze over first. Those that insist on their exclusive Onwentsia membership can well afford it. The combined wealth of the Onwentsia Club membership, were it calculated and revealed, would make most taxpayers faint. That folks should be put upon to pay taxes on a club that most would not have access to is beyond audacious. It is simply reprehensible.
Jane Doe January 30, 2013 at 06:30 PM
If you want to burden the "average man" with your taxes then he/she should be given access to your facilities. Guess I can't blame the Private clubs of LF/LB for trying. How else would the Presidents afford to keep and maintain their private jets and second homes in FL that allow them to avoid paying their IL income taxes too??
Hmmmm6 January 30, 2013 at 06:43 PM
There are some key facts missing here. First, what is the current tax revenue at risk here for the Lake Forest and Lake Bluff communites? Second, what is the zoning status of the clubs who are petitioning for favored status? If they are zoned for golf course or open space only, that could affect the future commercial or residential use of their land, and arguably, they might be entitled to a lower bill. Even if they are zoned only for a golf course, if Arnold Palmer or Donald Trump have the possibility of coming in and running the course on a for-profit basis then the land still has some commercial value, albeit speculative. If, however, the land is zoned for possible residential or commercial development, members are sitting on the right to develop those properties. Their land holdings have commercial value and should be taxed.Unlike Janet, I don't think that is a "hell freezes over" probability. Golf is struggling nationwide with dwindling demand. Combine that with falling birth rates and lower incomes, and there are a variety of circumstances that could lead to sales. Some tax seems only fair because they use infrastructure and police and fire. Finally, who are the legislators who should be contacted? Removing land from the tax rolls at this time does not seem to be wise public policy and its disturbing that courts could be making that decision rather than legislatures.
Arthur H. Miller January 30, 2013 at 07:41 PM
Not knowing how big your yard is, or hwere, I can only say that many, many North Shore yards that add up to acres are indeed on special status for property taxes--to prevent forced subdivision. I'm not the authority on this, at all, but I suggest you contact LF Open Lands at least to get a proper referral for an answer.
Arthur H. Miller January 30, 2013 at 07:48 PM
Alas, my sense is that life is more complicated than that. On one side some people say teacher, public servant, etc. pension and medical care entitlements are "simply reprehensible" and on the other side that Goldman Sachs and Amgen got corrupt special treatment in the fiscal cliff negotiations (Bill Moyers, PBS, and NYT). Our whole financial fabric--public/private, federal, local and state--is a child's garden of incentives that end up just about giving everybody a break somewhere. Now we are scrapping over the bones of past prosperity.
Arthur H. Miller January 30, 2013 at 07:52 PM
Lake Forest population historically has not followed larger democraphic trends, but instead economic ups and downs and incentives (FHA house loans, after WWII, the drop in income tax rates in the early 1960s and prosperity of the late 1960s, and the sea change in imcome taxes of the 1980s. Golf will climb back in the saddle once the economy rights itself.
Julia Taber-Smith January 30, 2013 at 08:08 PM
It would be an interesting excercise to research the social and business connectivity between the City of Lake Forest and it's various boards, the Lake County Judicial system, and the Onwentsia Club. It would no doubt prove to be more engrossing than Downton Abbey.
Julia Taber-Smith January 30, 2013 at 08:28 PM
It is wonderful that Onwentsia's storied past is available for all to read about and ponder. What ever the Onwentsia Club's past means in the final analysys, it has little to do with the issue of saddling the taxpayer with it's tax burden. If one cares to look, one may find the operative word in the above comments. It Begins with M and contains two identical vowels.
Kevin White January 30, 2013 at 08:35 PM
If we are to provide taxpayer support for these private clubs than we as a taxpayer base should have full access to these restrictive, private clubs. No way to should we subsidize private clubs.
James Barry January 30, 2013 at 09:08 PM
Con artists rely on complicated scenerios to obscure their hidden agenda. This situation however is plain and simple. It is a bold faced attempted rip-off. There has been so much of this kind of thing going on unprosecuted these days that the club assumed that no one would notice. we can be sure that Onwentsia and it's lawyers (and who ever else is involved at city, county and state levels) assumed it was a slam dunk.
Steve Moore January 30, 2013 at 09:32 PM
This is a very interesting issue. There seem to be a number of important factors to look at. It is important that the details are brought to public attention and examined so that more articles may be written and more public discussion opened up. It would be unwise to make light of the effects this kind of thing can have on a community especially in this precarious economy. A big thank you to Claudia Lanart and THE PATCH for bringing this matter to light. I can only wonder why there is no mention of this story on Gazebonews (!?) hummmm!
Marianne Ornsby January 30, 2013 at 10:01 PM
It is not so much that "people are getting excited about this situation". The truth of the matter is more that they are not stupid and they are not all asleep.
Inger Strohm January 30, 2013 at 10:39 PM
Julia,this is a wild guess at your puzzle... would that "M" word be Moocher?
Mosober January 30, 2013 at 11:47 PM
The club is not that great and not as open to many who can afford much better. Yes there is a glass wall. Why shouldn't my club dues cover taxes? Its better than some of the stuffy nonsense the budget covers today. Yes my kids like it but frankly I prefer hitting at Conway.
informed January 30, 2013 at 11:50 PM
I have lived many decades in the shadow of Onwentsia. There was a time when we used to walk and sled there in winter. I remember when the fence was erected to keep kids, and dog walkers and so forth out and off PRIVATE land. Now they expect me to subsidize that private land? I agree that no one should "make light" of this issue. It is extremely serious that anyone is even considering this outrageous suggestion by those who can most afford to pay their taxes. Putting that burden on the 'peasants' who live on the outside of the fence is really an outrageous thought, let alone an actual attempt to make it pass.
Vicky Kujawa January 31, 2013 at 01:24 AM
Gary, you read my mind!
Vicky Kujawa January 31, 2013 at 01:26 AM
If the membership of the Onwentsia Club can afford the initiation fees/dues, then I am certain that they can afford to pay their own property taxes as well.
Chris Antonson January 31, 2013 at 01:51 AM
Owentsia is a terrible club. Maybe 100 years ago it was a nice place but now it is just a dump. The course is by far the worst private course in the North Shore. It's not an enjoyable place to be, iv been there many times.
Chris Antonson January 31, 2013 at 01:54 AM
Mosober I agree. The club is very "sub par" pun intended. As for conway, that is a fabulous course. Iv only had the chance to play it just a couple of times, but it blew me away. If I'm not mistaken their having the BMW championship there which is a PGA Tour event in September. I can't wait to see Tiger Woods up close and in action!
Chris Antonson January 31, 2013 at 01:56 AM
Janet Olsen, Onwentsia is by no means "exclusive". It's a very sub par course and club.
Arthur H. Miller January 31, 2013 at 03:08 AM
As I remember, the issue was vandalism that led to the fences. It's unfortunate that casual walkers also were blocked out. this cold be remedied, I should think, for neighbors--a gate key, etc.
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
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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