Jeff Jardine

January 15, 2014

Jardine: Controlling the property you own is not always guaranteed

Between neighbors wanting to preserve land at others’ expense, and developers looking to get richer, landowners can find themselves under siege.

 Property ownership never is as simple as a deed might suggest.

You might own land or be in the process of buying it, but restrictions limit what you can do with it. Environmental laws, easements and many other elements come into play.

Of course, you’ll always find people – including neighbors – who want to dictate the terms of your investment, even if your plans mirror what exists across the street. Or they’ll try to use their friends in government to change the ground rules, forcing you to sell so they can make a buck off the land themselves.

A 15-minute drive through Stanislaus County pretty much covers the spectrum.

Northwest of Modesto, the city and development interests want to update the general plan map to include Wood Colony, opening the cultural and agricultural mecca to industrial uses. If approved, century-old family farms in some cases would be in the cross hairs of business development, destined for the divide-and-conquer tactic of driving farmers out one by one by surrounding them with industry or housing. Promising jobs, business interests would buy the ag land at ag land prices, which are lower per acre than developed industrial acreage. Then, the moment the property receives industrial zoning entitlements, land values increase dramatically. Ka-ching!

Conversely, a different kind of land-use issue is brewing at the River Oaks Golf Course and Driving Range in Ceres. Owners Michael and Kimberly Phipps want to transform the front nine holes – roughly 29 acres – into 56 homes on lots ranging from 8,000 to 24,000 square feet. They’ve drawn up plans and have a tentative agreement with a local developer who, they say, will use local contractors to build the homes. That will require a general plan amendment by Ceres, an environmental review and the blessing of the Modesto City-County Airport Land Use Commission because the golf course is in the path of the airport’s runway. Also, power lines packing 230 volts traverse the west side of the course.

Why does Phipps want to develop? Put bluntly, the golf course operation doesn’t make money and hasn’t for about a decade, Phipps said. His parents, Jim and Carol, built River Oaks as a nine-hole course along the Tuolumne River in the late 1970s after trying to join Del Rio Country Club only to find they’d have to wait three years for the right to buy a $30,000 membership.

The Ceres course opened in 1979. The Tuolumne River reclaimed it four times, beginning in 1981 and most recently during the New Year’s flood of 1997. “There was no flood insurance,” Mike Phipps said. To guarantee consistent income, dad Jim added what became the front nine on the bluff above the river, fronted by Hatch Road.

Tom Westbrook, Ceres’ planning/building division manager, said the city can’t take up the development issue until Phipps files a formal application to begin the process. “There’s been nothing in writing,” Westbrook said.

You can’t blame residents who own homes with beautiful views of the Tuolumne River from their back porches and the front-nine fairways and greens from their front windows for wanting to maintain the status quo.

They’ve vented through letters to the Ceres Courier, suggesting the Phippses sell the course to someone else or simply take their financial lumps and file for bankruptcy. Kimberly Phipps, a real estate agent, will tell you there isn’t much of a market for perennial red-ink golf courses. She said they have received cold calls from out-of-area investors interested in purchasing the property, but none wanting to keep it as a golf course.

“Before we close the door on our city’s only golf course, someone else deserves a shot at it,” one neighbor wrote to the paper.

That would be fine if it was, indeed, the city’s golf course. The city could hire and fire managers and endure the same kinds of problems encumbering Modesto’s city-owned courses. But River Oaks is a privately owned property, a business known for its reasonable green fees and youth golf programs. Golf is declining in popularity. The income from green fees can’t keep up with the cost of watering the course, and paying the taxes and the employees, Phipps said.

In fact, Phipps said that if he can’t develop the front nine, he’ll likely have to close the entire course. And should that happen – and the fairways and greens die from the lack of water and maintenance – its unlikely a new owner will want to keep it as a golf course.

A novel thought: Perhaps those who want to keep River Oaks as is could make Phipps a fair-market value offer for the front nine. Or maybe Phipps could sell the land to the well-connected developers who want to stick a business park in Wood Colony under the banner of jobs, baby, jobs.

Indeed, property ownership is never as simple as a deed suggests.

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