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Way Down the Hole on Golf Courses

Most golf courses lose money for governments. That is very true if the course is owned by the government as a public amenity, but also it’s notoriously difficult to tax golf courses at market rate value because of lobbying by well-connected customers of those clubs.

Golf courses are often given special tax breaks and benefits by state and local governments. This was almost the case in Arlington County against its wishes.

In 2018 there was an attempt by special interest groups in the state legislature to force Arlington County to tax the two golf courses within its territory (the Washington Golf and County Club, and the Army Navy County Club) similar to a natural wildlife preserve instead of a commercial money-making use. This could have resulted in $1.5 million in reduced real estate property tax revenue to the county.

Thankfully, the Governor at the time, Northam, vetoed the bill.

But even outside the issue of how a golf courses are taxed, if it is owned by the government and run as a public amenity (often for the wealthier members of the community), then it is often a money pit for tax dollars. The public golf course in Herndon, Virginia cost the town $268,000 dollars in 2020.

If you ever hear an Arlington official say we should own and operate a golf course like we do a luxury Aquatics Center, run for the hills!

Golf courses, as a business model, are also frequently money-losers. One of the courses here in Arlington, the private Army Navy County Club, was $6.8 million in the hole (revenue to expenses) in 2019, and more than $1 million down in the year before that. (Those are the most recent numbers available as of 2022.)

With Army Navy Country Club being about 250 acres and Washington Golf and County Club being about 110 acres, those two account for more than 2% of all land in the county.

Without judgement on the use of land taken up by golf courses or the sport of golf itself, there are many financial and taxation issues to be aware of with golf courses in the county and the northern Virginia region.