Polly and I are privileged to be spending our twilight years in a magnificent residential community within sight of the beautiful, crystal blue waters of Lake Michigan, surrounded by stately forests and providing us with all of the amenities associated with the finest country clubs in America.
Twenty-seven spectacular holes of championship golf; an Olympic swimming pool, with a smaller version for the kiddies; tennis courts, pickle ball courts, bocce ball courts, hiking trails, even a fishing pond. And sunsets, you wouldn’t believe.
The developer, a visionary man named Bill Cottrill, wisely provided in the covenants that there would be a Property Owners Association, to which all lot owners would belong. And pay dues. Owners are entitled to the full use of all the amenities.
Many people, particularly those living in lake front properties, purchased vacant lots at Birchwood Farms for the express purpose of acquiring membership in the Property Owners Association, and access to its many recreational opportunities.
In due course, to emphasize its upscale status, the Property Owners Association adopted the pseudonym “Birchwood Farms Golf and Country Club.” Unlike other country clubs, however, Birchwood was not legally entitled to charge an initiation fee. Membership in the Property Owners Association – the Club, as it came to be known – was automatic and mandatory upon purchase of a lot.
As Mr. Cottrill divested himself of the real estate and other developers came to Birchwood, the practice of paying the club a lump sum upon sale of lots to new members, in lieu of accumulated dues, became common.
Dubbed a “transfer fee” this payment was originally $1,000. In due course, the fee was imposed on every transfer, whether from a developer or any other owner.
Eventually, spearheaded by owners who had paid substantial initiation fees at other country clubs, the “transfer fee” grew from $1,000, to $3,000, to $7,000 and currently to $10,000.
Having been burdened with a classical legal education and some years of experience in the administration of civil and criminal justice, I have opined, for the benefit of anyone who would listen, that the “transfer fee” is illegal, unjust, immoral and just plain stupid.
The stupidity of it has lately come acropper, as home sites at Birchwood are now being advertised for $1.00, hardly a flattering bit of public information about the value of owning a lot at Birchwood.
It has been said that Property Owners Associations are the embryo of democracy. Election to their unpaid governing boards is seen as an admirable community service, and the members of such organizations are prone to leave the decision making to those hardy and sacrificing souls who are willing to take up the yoke.
Still, incumbency is always a heady state. As Lord Acton said, “power corrupts.”
This year, Birchwood, like all such clubs, is feeling the pinch. Some older members, wishing to divest themselves of membership, have discovered that they must pay the club $10,000 for the dubious privilege of selling their lot for $1.00. Their option: pay dues for the rest of your life.
The Board has concluded that a dues increase of $60 per month is needed. They scheduled three ‘town hall’ meetings to test the receptivity of the members and ostensibly listen to the views of their constituents.
One meeting was enough to suggest that the natives are restless. They hastily circulated ballots for bylaw changes at the September annual meeting which they perceive as protecting the transfer fee from legal challenge, and which emphasize the on going financial obligation of members who may wish to sell or abandon their lots.
The old judge has had a belly full of public service, dating from 1962. Still, politics at every level is an integral part of the stuff of life. I am constrained to admit that I will vote NO on the Birchwood dues increase, and I will continue to advocate that the Board consider alternative sources of revenue to replace the transfer fee before I will support any dues increase.