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Messy Beacon Woods Golf Course sale is up to the court

Bill Jamieson hits a driver from the 15th tee that overlooks Smokehouse Pond on Beacon Woods Golf Course.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times (2008)

Bill Jamieson hits a driver from the 15th tee that overlooks Smokehouse Pond on Beacon Woods Golf Course.

BAYONET POINT — By last September, the picture was clear: Beacon Woods Golf Club was losing money, lots of it.

Last summer alone the not-for-profit club had lost at least $112,000 and was so "close to being insolvent" that it put off paying bills, the club treasurer later said.

Directors decided the best survival strategy was to sell the 18-hole course. But to whom?

That has become a messy question in one of west Pasco's oldest and best-known golf course communities. Ultimately, a court may decide.

Brian Ferratto, a retired New York custom home builder who says his clients included pop star Mariah Carey and crooner Harry Connick Jr., says directors should know the answer: Sell the course to him, because that's what the members voted to do in September.

In exchange for the course, he says he would assume the club's $1.2-million debt and put in nearly $500,000 in improvements. He wants to buy it so badly that he has sued the club — twice.

But he has some competition: Not long after membership ballots were counted, another proposal to buy the course came in, this one a $2-million offer from Matt Lowman, who owns the nearby Links golf course in Hudson.

The club is considering that proposal, too, which Ferratto's lawyer says is like the groom finding another bride on the way to the church.

"The membership spoke, they voted," said Ferratto, 51, now of Hudson, in a brief interview late last year. "What alternative do I have? Walk away? I'm not one to walk away."

But directors of the club say the September vote — and Ferratto's proposed sales contract — is not as cut-and-dry as he says it is. They say their obligation is to think about the long-term survival of the golf course. In court depositions and interviews, they say that Lowman's offer could be the better one.

"It's very confusing," director Lester Rydell, 80, told the Times. "But we've got to look out for the membership."

• • •

Built in 1974, the Beacon Woods golf course boasts rolling fairways, undulating greens and water hazards. It has been host to numerous tournaments over the decades.

In its early years, the course was private and depended almost entirely on its membership and their guests. But membership has dwindled, from 386 in 1978 to less than 100 now, a loss exacerbated by a bylaw requirement entitling resigning members to refunds of their deposits, about $4,000. Most revenue now depends on public play, and public play is not exactly plentiful during a depressed economy.

Enter Ferratto, who with wife, Peggy, bought property in Hudson in 2001.

Ferratto had made his living in New York working on expensive homes. His wife's family, the Segallas, own a sand and gravel company in Connecticut, and her cousins at one time owned a New York golf course.

An avid golfer, Ferratto had also done some work on improving the course greens and clubhouse at Copake Country Club in New York. He had always wanted to own a golf course and missed a shot he had to go in with a group buying Copake, said his local broker, Sandy Barley.

At Beacon Woods, where he became a member, "he fell in love with the place," said Barley.

Ferratto, he said, soon started filling notebooks with his plans for improving the course. "He's the kind of guy that if he's interested in something," Barley said, "he's going to study it."

Ferratto asked the club's directors early last year if he could buy the course. They said it was not for sale. He persisted, and they told him to collect petitions to put it to a vote to the membership. So he did. But the six board directors rejected the petitions, saying they did not meet certain requirements of the bylaws.

He sued, asking a judge to decide whether that rejection was proper. But the two sides reached a settlement agreement in August that called for the directors to hold a vote on the petitions and for Ferratto, in turn, to release a legal claim on the club that had prevented it from closing on a $815,000 loan from Mercantile Bank.

• • •

But the wording of the ballot made life a little complicated. Each member got a mail-in ballot that gave two choices: Either vote to approve or vote not to approve the "petition to sell the assets" of the club to Ferratto. More than 60 percent of the membership voted to approve.

What exactly did that mean? Ferratto and his supporters say the answer is obvious. The membership voted to approve selling the club to him.

Under the bylaws, members approve the sale of the club's assets. State law, however, gives board of directors of not-for-profit corporations the right to "abandon" sales previously approved by members.

"The vote was simple," said Barley. "I don't know how anybody can read it any other way."

But some did. Club president Clint Thaxton said the vote meant only the approval of the petition, which had called only for the matter to be put on the agenda of an upcoming meeting.

Thaxton said directors complied with the ballot by putting the item on a Sept. 16 board meeting agenda. At that meeting, they directed Ferratto to submit a contract, which he did.

Nothing has ever been signed. Directors say they have problems with the proposed contract, including its lack of a specific purchase price. Barley, Ferratto's broker, said the club did not reach out to his client to negotiate.

Meanwhile, about a week after the Sept. 16 meeting, the second offer, from Lowman, came in. The $2-million price was higher — though because the club is a nonprofit, the members would not get any of the proceeds — and the perks for members a little sweeter, including free golf for people over 70 years old.

Directors said they needed to compare the two offers and polled members for their opinions. Most of them said they liked the Lowman offer, though some of Ferratto's supporters said they didn't bother participating.

"I'd already voted," said 67-year-old John Mariano, father of County Commissioner Jack Mariano. "These people are trying to circumvent the vote."

So Ferratto sued again in October. Next month, the golf club will ask Circuit Judge W. Lowell Bray to throw out the case.

"All the information is going to be presented to Judge Bray," said Thaxton, "and it's his responsibility to decide."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Messy Beacon Woods Golf Course sale is up to the court 01/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 11:44am]
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