The Ethicist

This intriguing legal battle pits golf-home owner and neighboring course

March 27, 2020
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Michael Waraksa

The great American poet Robert Frost once wrote that good fences make good neighbors. He clearly never spent much time in New Jersey.

The Ethicist realizes it must seem like the Garden State is the epicenter for every moral dilemma coming down the, um, turnpike, but he’s confident New York (and Connecticut) will get a turn soon enough.

In this episode, the jousting is focused on some upscale properties adjacent to Manasquan River Golf Club in Brielle, on the New Jersey Shore an hour south of Manhattan. There, homeowners have more on their minds than the standard complaints about being pelted by crooked tee shots from the venerable 98-year-old club’s members. Specifically, we’re talking about a 65-foot-high net one resident erected to keep Manasquan’s balls from hitting his clapboard. In an area where homes can sell for more than $1 million, the driving-range-style net isn’t exactly being embraced as an “improvement.”

Figuring it was better to ask for forgiveness than for permission, Ron Dana put up the 130-foot-wide net in 2018 without securing any permits from the town. Predictably, neighbors who had their views of the course and the river disrupted howled in protest, and they put up an online petition that has gotten more than 200 signatures. The club came out against the net as an eyesore, too, saying it detracted from the riverfront view members enjoy. Both groups pressed the town to assess Dana for violations of various building and permitting ordinances, which it did in 2019, saying he broke rules limiting the height of fences in Brielle to no more than 12 feet high.

Dana responded by requesting a variance for his net to be exempt from the fence-height rule on the basis that a 12-footer wouldn’t be much help against a pop-up slice. The town zoning board was unsympathetic and denied the variance. Undeterred, Dana refused to take down his net—so the town and the club sued to force him to remove it. Dana countersued, and the parties are now faced off like the Night’s Watch and White Walkers in “Game of Thrones” just before the dragons get involved. The wall is still up, the neighbors are aggravated, and there’s about to be a big fight.

The dispute is one that would make a property developer question his or her capitalist bona fides. On the one hand, those with more libertarian leanings would say people have the right to do with their property as they please. On the other, everybody is a libertarian until something they don’t like goes in next door and could tank their property values. Just ask Donald Trump. He fought for nearly five years to keep the Scottish government from putting a wind farm off the coast of his Trump International Golf Club in Aberdeenshire. He not only lost, he had to pay the government’s court costs.

Manasquan River is in the fascinating position of being the venue that produces the wayward shots going into Dana’s yard while arguing he shouldn’t have the blight of a net in his yard to prevent it from happening. But before we’re overcome with empathy for Dana, consider this: Anybody who buys a property adjacent to a golf hole—especially 200 to 250 yards from the tee on the right-hand side—has to have some idea of what they’re in for. After all, the OG of golf properties, the Old Course Hotel at St. Andrews, has been shrugging off incoming fire from the Road Hole tee for 50 years.

The Ethicist’s solution? The club, town and Dana should lay down their weapons and make a deal that works for all sides. The club foots the bill for taking down the net and replacing Dana’s vulnerable windows with shatterproof panes should they get hit (a far less-expensive proposition than the route clubs like Winged Foot have taken when they straight up bought homes that proved to be too close to play). If Dana doesn’t agree, the club should be free to put up its own net adjacent to Dana’s, but cover it with (outward facing) advertisements—like the Green Monster at Fenway Park.

Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire.


ARE YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW INVOLVED IN A TRICKY, AMUSING OR JUST PLAIN STRANGE GOLF SITUATION?

▶ Tell us about it, and the Golf Digest Ethicist might write about it in an upcoming column. To submit, describe your issue or send a news link to GolfDigest_Ethicist@discovery.com.


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