Long-term housing at Chambers Bay? Critics say idea threatens future U.S. Open

To hear John Ladenburg tell it, Pierce County leaders are risking their chances of attracting major championships to the Chambers Bay golf course in University Place.

The former county executive, who spearheaded creation of the course during his 2000-2008 tenure, contends that a proposed master plan update for the entire Chambers Creek Park complex would allow permanent residences on the site, accompanying a planned hotel and Tom Douglas restaurant.

The idea of people living on the site would cause USGA leaders to seek other sites for major events, he said, because the USGA would not want to deal with the complications of permanent residents in the park complex at tournament time.

“They don’t have to come back here,” Ladenburg said. “Given that we’ve only hosted two major tournaments, we don’t want to do anything that the USGA. kind of blinks.”

Current County Executive Bruce Dammeier and his leadership team say the concerns are overblown. They contend that the proposed master plan isn’t a vehicle for permanent on-site housing, and they add that it charts a course for future success, including future major tournaments.

“We want to ensure that we have a world-class golf course,” Dammeier said. “We all want to create a golf course that enhances the resort and hopefully provides some nice new amenities for our citizens. I think that we all want the course to be a on stronger financial footing as well. We all want almost the exact same thing.”

In essence, the issue hinges on two words: “extended stay.” The proposed master plan applies the phrase to 130 planned golf villas bordering the park’s Central Meadow, an increase from earlier plans that imagined 70 of the structures. Aimed at golf-minded tourists, the two-story villas could be leased for a month or more, according to the master plan proposal.

County Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg happens to be married to the former executive, and her district includes University Place. She argues that the “extended stay” language allows for permanent housing in the park — an idea repeatedly rejected throughout the development of the course and the site.

“That’s the wording I want removed,” she said during an Aug. 15 council meeting when the topic flared up. “It means a stay of 30 days or longer with no end to it at all. It could be six months, it could be six years.”

Ladenburg offered an amendment to remove the words from the master plan. It failed 4-3 on straight party lines. Democrats Derek Young and Rick Talbert voted yes. Republicans Doug Richardson, Dan Roach, Pam Roach and Jim McCune voted no — but Richardson, the council chairman, suggested tabling the debate in the interest of gathering more information and public input. The final public hearing on the master plan is set for Tuesday, Sept. 12.

In the interim, the debate has turned into a series of back and forths. Topics include the difference between apartments and villas, murky distinctions between permanent housing and leased vacation rentals, and whether the prospect of long-term villa rentals is a new feature of the master plan, inserted at the last minute by Absher Construction and Dan Putnam, the team selected last year by county leaders to build the resort complex adjoining the course.

Young said the “extended stay” wording came later in the process than he would have liked. It might make economic sense for the developers, but he wants the public to weigh in.

“I think we need to at least slow this down so we can make sure this is in the county’s best interests from a business standpoint,” he said.

Dammeier and his senior counsel, Don Anderson, said the “extended stay” language isn’t new; it was examined and approved in June by the University Place City Council as part of a joint planning effort for the park.

Former County Executive Pat McCarthy, now serving as State Auditor, recalls vetting proposals during the long process that preceded selection of the Absher-Putnam development team in 2016. The villas and possible leasing were on the table then, she said.

“Extended stay was always a part of that discussion,” she said. “What was taken out of the mix were condos on the hill (above the course). I’m a little bit, I don’t know if surprised is the right word, that all of a sudden this is an issue. The villas were a concept that was put on the table early on. They did explain that part of the idea with an extended stay would allow them to have the financing they would need.”

Former deputy county executive Kevin Phelps, who served in McCarthy’s administration and worked on the run-up to the 2015 U.S. Open, also remembers working on the hotel development proposals for the course. Phelps left the county in 2016 to accept a position as city manager of Glendale, Ariz., but he still keeps an eye on local doings.

Villas and long-term leasing were part of the mix during those talks, he said.

“It was clearly articulated that that was what their vision was,” he said.

Phelps added that other prominent championship courses such as the Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania and Pinehurst in North Carolina include housing components while still attracting championship events. USGA officials don’t mind, he suggested.

“They’re all about the course and the challenge of the course and the amount of area you can stage the event in,” Phelps said. “None of the (villas) are taking up any of the program area. They’re situated on the slope component of the site. If it doesn’t take up the planning area and the usable area for the event itself, I don’t believe the USGA would have any concern.”

In theory, the idea of long-term leasing of the villas is meant to improve the prospects for financing the planned hotel. Leased villas provide a predictable income stream. Moreover, the notion of long-term rentals is a temporary approach, Dammeier said.

“I am much less nervous about the extended stay because there is a strong financial incentive for the developer to get them out of long-term rentals and into short-term rentals,” he said.

The plan also indicates that the 130 golf villas, as proposed, wouldn’t intrude on the golf course itself.

“They’re designed to be in a no-man’s land on the side of the course, on the side of the hill,” Anderson said. “And it doesn’t have any utility as park property.”

Those arguments don’t persuade John Ladenburg, who aired his worries in an Aug. 22 tweet, again suggesting the USGA won’t want to bring tournaments back if they have to deal with the complications of permanent residents in the park complex.

He doesn’t mind vacation rentals or timeshares, he said. Long-term leases are another matter.

“Basically, extended stay is a euphemism for permanent residents,” he said. “If you lease a house or apartment, you’re a resident. You don’t pay hotel-motel tax. You just live there.

“The USGA wants to control the whole site,” Ladenburg added. “You’ve got to be in the top 100th of 1 percent to get a U.S. Open. They’ve got thousands of courses to pick from. This would not work.”

Robert Trent Jones, the renowned golf course architect who designed Chambers Bay and calls it one of the highlights of his career, prefers to avoid political battles over the site (“the county is my client,” he said repeatedly). But he noted that increasing housing around the course cuts against national trends.

“It’s almost counterintuitive to increase housing within a golf course while the other courses are doing the opposite,” he said. “I consider Chambers Bay to be a masterwork. It’s been so acknowledged by my peers. Therefore, I want the golf course to survive and benefit the people who support it — namely the people of Pierce County. If that’s their decision, that’s their decision. I hope they make a decision with full understanding and transparency of what the elements are.”

Dammeier and Anderson said they have spoken with USGA officials about the master plan. They have heard no criticisms.

“We have been in direct contact with them and asked these questions and gotten their direct response that it won’t have an impact,” Dammeier said. “I also am committed without question to get more USGA events here. John envisioned the course, and now it’s kind of my turn to have a role in the legacy of it. I appreciate John and his commitment and his stewardship, but I’m the guy that’s got to be driving this.”

Chambers will host its next major tournament in May 2019, when the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship arrives. It’s not clear whether the hotel and villa complex would be complete by then. The developers and the county have more work to do once the master plan is approved, including the drafting of contracts, when explicit details can be negotiated.

“The really controlling document will be the ground lease,” Dammeier said. “That’s the one that’s going to specify all the nitty-gritty details. The fine details will be in that ground lease, where we can really work the tradeoffs to make sure it works for Pierce County and it works for the developer.”