NEWTON — The Brae Burn Country Club is a gem of a place in springtime, a bucolic, rolling landscape of green, where for a princely sum members can enjoy an oasis of open space at one of the nation’s most storied golf courses.
Founded in 1897, Brae Burn collects millions in dues from members, and in turn guards their retreat with no-trespassing signs and a chain link fence that earned it the nickname “Fortress Brae Burn” among some of its Newton neighbors.
And like many other private country clubs in Massachusetts, Brae Burn enjoys a generous tax break from a decades-old state program intended to help preserve open land and recreational space. The benefit lopped off about $600,000 from its tax payments to Newton this year, at a time when the city faced soaring costs to fund schools and public services, and leaders asked residents to increase their own taxes by more than $9 million in March.
That override failed, causing some officials in the city to question why Brae Burn and two other clubs for wealthy members should continue to get a combined tax break of $1.75 million at the expense of Newton residents.
“That’s a huge deal. That could pay for teachers, firefighters, and police,” said Victoria Danberg, a city councilor who opposes the tax breaks. “The taxpayers of the city of Newton are 100 percent footing the bill for these private clubs.”
Amid economic uncertainty and high inflation, the struggles of even well-to-do communities such as Newton have sparked a reevaluation of the state program, called Chapter 61B, that reduces property taxes on eligible land used for open space or recreation by as much as 75 percent.
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller of Newton said in a statement that she is encouraging the state “to reexamine the financial benefits” provided to recreational properties like golf courses.
She acknowledged that communities can benefit from the open space and opportunity to purchase land under the program, but added, “the level of abatement that state law currently allows deserves a second look.”
Across the state, the Globe identified at least 100 golf courses that participated in the program this year. While the bulk of the clubs reported taking property tax cuts of less than $60,000, the Globe found 10 courses that received breaks of about $100,000 or more, according to public property and tax documents gathered in response to records requests.
Among the biggest beneficiaries of the tax program are some of the state’s most exclusive golf courses, including clubs in Belmont and Marblehead, as well as Newton.
In addition to Brae Burn, Newton’s other two country clubs received similar tax breaks this year: nearly $700,000 for the Charles River Country Club, and $450,000 for the Woodland Golf Club. Combined, the three own just shy of 550 acres in the city.
The Tedesco Country Club, which owns 175 acres in Marblehead and Swampscott, saved nearly $150,000 on its local property taxes, most of which came from its Swampscott property.
The Belmont Country Club received a deduction of nearly $368,000 from its Belmont property taxes, plus roughly $70,000 more from its land in Arlington and Lexington. It owns about 200 acres across the three towns, public records show.
“It makes no sense whatsoever,” said Cabell Eames, a Belmont resident and political director for the Better Future Project. “There are some country clubs that can afford to pay more [in taxes], and there are cities and towns that desperately need it.”
Proponents of the law say it’s an important land preservation tool, and gives property owners an incentive to not develop their land in exchange for lower taxes.
The provision that applies to golf courses is just part of a larger land preservation program that encompasses a wide range of uses, including hiking or camping. There are other programs meant to protect forest and agricultural land.
“It’s a very important, and supported, program from a land conservation and an environmental perspective,” said Jennifer Ryan, deputy director of advocacy for the Charles River Watershed Association. “The golf courses are just a piece of it.”
The Chapter 61B reduction doesn’t apply to buildings or other improvements. Participating landowners also must agree to some conditions, like giving their community the right of first refusal if they ever decide to sell, according to a state guide for the law.
“That gives communities some opportunities to conserve land,” said Heidi Ricci, director of policy and advocacy for Mass Audubon. “These are large properties, so they do have open space value for the community.”
Not every large private golf course owner participates in the program, including The Country Club in Brookline, according to the town’s assessor.
But it is an attractive option within the state’s golf industry, according to Gary Larrabee, a longtime golf journalist and historian based on the North Shore.
“The tax break has obviously been well received by the country club industry in Massachusetts,” Larrabee said. “They are multimillion-dollar annual businesses, they employ hundreds of people, and they are in competition with each other to get the best possible members.”
Chapter 61B requires that recreation land be open to the public, or to the members of a nonprofit organization. Many of the state’s elite golf clubs are organized as nonprofits, and file public tax returns to the IRS that are available through the agency’s website and ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer.
In its public tax filing for 2020, the latest available, the Belmont Country Club reported revenues of more than $21.1 million, including nearly $5 million in membership dues. After expenses, it reported net revenue at about $11.7 million.
Andrew M. Coleman, the club’s general manager, said its policy is not to respond to media inquiries.
Sean Fitzgerald, Swampscott’s town administrator, argues that it’s time to eliminate the tax deduction for private golf courses such as the Tedesco Country Club.
According to its complete 2019 tax return, Tedesco collected more than $3.3 million in membership dues and reported total revenue of $6.5 million. After expenses, it reported a surplus of about $153,000 that year.
Tedesco did not respond to requests for comment. Fitzgerald said many of Swampscott’s residents cannot afford to use the club, where he said a membership costs $60,000 to join, but are supporting it anyway.
“Every citizen, every property taxpayer in Swampscott is actually gifting the Tedesco Country Club $133,000 so they can enjoy a very exclusive club,” Fitzgerald said. “From a public policy standpoint, this is unjust and wrong.”
Back in Newton, three private clubs got a strong financial boost from Chapter 61B: Over the past five years, Brae Burn, Charles River, and Woodland saved about $7.9 million on their property taxes, public records show.
That year, Woodland reported $2.4 million in net revenue. In 2020, Charles River reported around $1.3 million, and Brae Burn had about $615,000.
Leaders at the Newton courses would not comment or did not respond to requests for comment.
A Globe reporter visited all three clubs on a recent sunny afternoon, though most golfers declined to offer opinions about the tax breaks. At Brae Burn, golfer Deirdre Garrity said the club’s property tax reduction does not raise any concerns with her.
“Brae Burn does a lot for the community,” Garrity said.
But Brae Burn in recent months has raised the ire of some residents, who complained after the club erected a fence to block a path used by neighbors who would walk the grounds.
Among those residents is David Bluestein, who has been urging local leaders to eliminate the benefit for the private clubs. It’s wrong that they take a tax break from Newton residents, he said, while blocking the public from enjoying the property.
“It is a benefit that comes at the expense of almost everybody in the city,” Bluestein said. “And it is patently unfair.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.