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Property rights along the fairway

With new technology, a golf shot can travel a long way sideways, unfortunately. This brings about a collision between the design of old golf courses, and the property rights of homeowners who have windows within 250 yards (as the crow flies) of the tee box:

In Rehoboth, Mass., Joyce Amaral collected 1,800 golf balls from her property abutting Middlebrook Country Club, then lugged them into court when she sued the club. Ms. Amaral’s house was hit so regularly, her landscapers wore hard hats. Balls set off the burglar alarm and dented her car.

Although the club existed decades before the house was built, a court ruled that the balls — and the golfers looking for them — were a trespass. The parties settled this month, with the club agreeing to shorten the No. 9 hole, which should keep the Amaral property out of the line of fire.

But Pete Cuppels, the club’s owner, said the settlement would probably put his low-cost nine-hole course out of business.

"I’ve already had to take $50,000 from my retirement account to pay for legal fees, both the plaintiff’s and mine," Mr. Cuppels, 68, said. "We modified the hole before the settlement, and we’ve already seen a big drop in return business. I feel worse that my name is on a ruling that could be like the Roe v. Wade of golf law. If the precedent is that golf course owners are responsible for every crooked shot hit by a novice or a good golfer, we’re all in trouble."

I have a couple of thoughts on this. First, for houses that have been "moved closer" to the tee box by technical advances in equipment, the assumption of liability seems a bit harsh. Let the golfers there play with "real" woods and steel shafts! Second, from a transactions cost perspective, I can't see how the golfers themselves could be held responsible. It's up to the golf course owner and the homeowners to come to some agreement on tee box location, equipment, etc., that minimizes the damage to property while maintaining the value of the course as a commercial enterprise.