Detroit's Rackham Golf Course in Huntington Woods must remain a publicly owned links even if the city sells it, the Michigan Court of Appeals said in a ruling released Wednesday.
That was a relief to Huntington Woods residents and to golfers playing in Wednesday's heat, who said they feared plans by Detroit officials to sell the 120-acre course adjoining the Detroit Zoo for conversion into a housing development.
"We're extremely happy with the decision," said Huntington Woods Mayor Ron Gillham.
"We know Detroit could sell it to us or some other governmental unit. Our attorneys are going over this decision but if it's sold, it must be a public golf course," said Gillham, who has lived in Huntington Woods since 1959.
James Canning, a spokesman for Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, said city attorneys are still reviewing the court's decision and officials have not decided whether to appeal.
The appeals court said the Rackham family gift to Detroit in 1924 has "unambiguous language and the clearly stated intent" was that the land could not be used for anything but a public course. The three-judge panel added that Detroit may only sell the property "to another public entity and not to a private entity," even if the private buyer promises to keep it as a public golf course.
A private developer offered to buy the course from Detroit in 2006. At the time, the sale was envisioned as a way to shore up Detroit's 2005-06 fiscal year budget. The ensuing legal challenge by Huntington Woods and several of its residents caused Detroit financial officials to not rely on the proposed sale in projected revenue estimates in later budgets, Canning said.
Huntington Woods challengers to the deal argued, successfully it turns out, that a sale would violate the terms of the Rackhams' gift. Horace Rackham, who made a fortune in the early auto boom, donated the land and developed the course so average citizens could play at a facility rivaling the elite private clubs of the era.
Playing in their weekly Wednesday golf league at Rackham, players young and old said they were relieved.
"I like Rackham a lot. You can score well here, and they keep it in real nice shape," Cary Almas, 28, of Clawson said before starting his golf round.
The course was designed by fabled golf architect Donald Ross, who also designed the course at Oakland Hills Country Club. The clubhouse was designed by Albert Kahn, Detroit's best known architect of buildings, whose stamp is on the Fisher Building and Detroit Police headquarters.
"It's classic golf," said an admiring Wes Williams, 63, of Rochester Hills.
Because of the course's prominent designers, and its history as the first integrated public course in metro Detroit, Huntington Woods voted to make it a historic district in 2006, said Huntington Woods Zoning and Preservation Administrator Hank Berry.
"This course allowed African Americans to play from its inception. That was unheard of in the 1920s," Berry said.
Ben Davis, a black Detroiter named head golf pro at Rackham in the 1960s, "was the first African American to hold that position at an 18-hole public golf course anywhere," Berry added.
"Ben taught me. And he still plays the course. He's 96 and still hits the ball straight."
Huntington Woods City Manager Alex Allie called the court ruling "very comprehensive. ... Obviously, we're very pleased. It is a relief. It essentially upholds all our arguments."
As for the more than $6 million Huntington Woods earlier had offered to buy the course from Detroit, "It's a different ballgame now. It's a very complex sale condition," he said.
Huntington Woods is not actively pursuing buying the course as it waits to see how Detroit will respond to Wednesday's ruling, Huntington Woods officials said.
The court's decision said that any sale would have to be approved by Rackham heirs and could go only to a public body for purposes of maintaining a public golf course. Those restrictions vastly reduce the $11.25 million that developers in 2006 offered Detroit with their plan to build as many as 400 houses, according to a 2006 recommendation from the Detroit Planning and Development Department.
An attorney for the development group that would have built the houses said the court's decision seemed clear-cut. "Certainly it seems the upshot is that it remains a golf course in perpetuity," said Arthur Siegal, whose Southfield-based firm Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss represented the developers' partnership, called Premium Golf LLC.
Siegal said the partners withdrew their bid in 2007 and that now, in light of the region's housing slump, they'd probably be less interested. "I'm sure the value of the property, for any purpose, has declined significantly," he said.
Ken Silver, Chairperson for Citizens to Save Rackham, said, "Huntington Woods hit a home run."
Silver, a 23-year Huntington Woods resident, and his wife live three blocks from Rackham Golf Course with their son and two daughters. Bounded on the south by I-696 and on the east by the Detroit Zoo, with its other two sides facing the homes of Huntington Woods, Rackham Golf Course is managed by American Golf Corp.
Steve Williams, a regional director for the company in Rochester Hills, said that golfers play more than 50,000 rounds a year there, but would not say how many players use the course.
Detroit Free Press