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Ruling puts Lebanon golf course development far from the pin

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/15/2020 10:31:44 PM
Modified: 2/15/2020 10:31:41 PM

LEBANON — The legal battle surrounding a decades-old agreement to preserve Carter Country Club’s nine-hole golf course appears to have ended without a clear winner.

A Grafton Superior Court judge ruled last month that the nonprofit Carter Community Building Association has no legal right to protect the public course from development.

But New London developer Doug Homan’s hopes of building on the Mechanic Street parcel aren’t any closer to fruition.

In a Jan. 24 ruling, Judge Lawrence MacLeod said the property still carries restrictions, hinting that it might be up to the more than 200 shareholders of a now-dissolved nonprofit to determine whether they’ll be enforced.

Rights to protect the golf course remain with Carter Country Club Inc., which folded after the sale of the golf course in 1986, “despite its invalid attempt” to give those rights to the CCBA, MacLeod found.

And because many of the club’s former shareholders are now deceased, their authority likely passed down to descendants, according to Hanover attorney Jeremy Eggleton, who represents the CCBA.

“That right is still out there,” he said via phone earlier this month. “The nature of that right is it’s a tool. It’s a stick to ensure that the land continues to have a golf course, and someone holds that stick.”

Ultimately, Eggleton added, untangling who can challenge development of the golf course may become more challenging for Homan, who sued the CCBA nearly two years ago.

“The next question becomes ‘Where’s that corporation?’ We haven’t really confronted this issue,” he said.

Lebanon attorney Barry Schuster, who helped negotiate the 1986 golf course protections, offered a similar assessment.

“It appears that the judge found the restriction enforceable,” he said last week. “It’s just that the judge found that it could not be transferred.”

The court case revolved around the wishes of one man — Meriden developer Edmond “Peanie” Goodwin, who acquired a controlling majority of the country club’s stock in 1983.

Like many of his successors, Goodwin sought to develop a portion of the land surrounding Carter Country Club but was met with stiff resistance from neighbors and golfers.

He sold the 47-acre golf course and several hundred surrounding acres to Lynnfield, Mass., developer Fred Fish in 1986, but he insisted on a requirement that the club property always remain open for golf.

The sale agreement included a provision saying that “at all times, in perpetuity, a nine-hole golf course shall be maintained and operated on the premises.” And if a golf course were not available for one year, the title to the course would revert to the nonprofit Carter Country Club Inc., which then transferred that right to the CCBA.

Since then, the CCBA has worked to protect the golf course, either attempting to negotiate with a succession of developers or using its attorneys to block possible development.

However, friction came to a head in 2018 when the club’s current owner, Homan, took the issue to court.

Homan, owner of Lake Sunapee Country Club, purchased the Lebanon property in 1992 and has become a divisive figure because of his attempts to build residential units on the property and surrounding acreage.

For 3½ years, Homan sparred with neighbors before Lebanon’s Planning Board as he sought permission to build a 306-home subdivision uphill from Mechanic Street. And in 2018, he pitched a mixed-use development closer to the main road.

That project would have 186 senior housing units, 400 apartments, a 300-seat restaurant and 60,000 square feet of retail space. Lebanon Planning Director David Brooks said this month ther have been no discussions on that proposal since early 2019.

In court filings, Homan argued the property restrictions weren’t transferrable to the CCBA and asked MacLeod to void the nonprofit’s interest in the Carter Country Club property.

The CCBA, through Eggleton, shot back, arguing its rights to ensure “the property shall remain a golf course in perpetuity” are enforceable.

MacLeod’s decision — that the rights aren’t transferrable but still exist — appears to have caught both sides off guard.

Within days, Homan’s Concord-based attorney Samantha Elliott filed a motion calling on MacLeod to clarify his ruling.

“It appears that this court did not intend to hold affirmatively” that the now-dissolved nonprofit has valid and enforceable rights,” Elliott wrote. That’s because the judge hasn’t heard arguments or seen evidence to that effect, she added.

Elliott declined to comment on the court case last week and multiple messages left for Homan weren’t returned.

Meanwhile, the CCBA countered, saying in an objection that Homan prevailed and must live with the results — that the old Carter Country Club Inc. and its successors have authority to protect the golf course.

MacLeod hasn’t yet issued another ruling or provided additional clarification.

What happens next could determine the fate of the golf course. With restrictions in place, experts say financing development on the property or obtaining insurance could be difficult.

“In my 45 years of experience, I would strongly advise any bank financing a project on that property that it needs to ascertain what the impact would be on their collateral if the heirs to the nonprofit prevailed,” Terry Martin, a retired commercial loan officer and vice president of Mascoma Bank, wrote in an email earlier this month.

“If I was a bank looking at that issue, I would find that to be fairly risky,” added Bruce Waters, a retired commercial real estate broker.

Waters said the financial challenges aren’t “insurmountable,” but those combined with the property restrictions have deterred others in the past.

“It’s the reason that I never saw in my career any real development of that property,” he said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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