Group labelled ‘astroturfing front’ for US golf developers

A community group bidding to create a bitterly disputed golf course has been attacked as an “astroturfing front” for sharing an address with the US developers tipped to build it – and because the group plans to disband if the bid is successful.

Communities for Coul (C4C) is applying for planning permission for a “world-class” golf course at Coul Links, an important coastal wildlife site north of the Dornoch Firth. But The Ferret has seen evidence that the group’s meeting place and postal address is the same as that used by a golf development company run by two US businessmen.

The company, Coul Links Limited, was set up by Americans Todd Warnock and Mike Keiser, to promote their previous plan for a golf course at the site. This was rejected by Scottish ministers in 2020 because of fears it would damage “protected habitats and species”.

C4C has also said it will disband if it wins planning permission for the golf course. It then plans to hand over the development to Keiser, a billionaire businessman and builder of golf courses from Chicago.

Local campaigners accused C4C of being a “sham” and a “stalking horse” for Warnock and Keiser. They are expecting its planning application to be considered by Highland Council on 12 September – and they want it to be rejected. 

C4C said Coul Links Limited had been “extremely helpful” in sharing information and the shared address was “convenient” for collecting correspondence. C4C described itself as a not-for-profit community company with five British directors who lived locally.

The proposal for making Coul Links into a golf course was first put forward by Warnock and Keiser in 2016. But it ran into fierce opposition from environmental groups who said it would harm a unique network of sand dunes home to rare plants, insects and birds.

Highland Council gave the golf course the go-ahead, but this was overturned by the Scottish Government in February 2020. Then, in 2021, C4C was formed “to gain planning permission for a new, environmentally sensitive, world-class golf course on Coul Links”.

C4C claimed the new golf course had community support, with nearly 70 per cent of people backing it in a ballot. But environmental groups, including the government’s wildlife agency, NatureScot, have again come out against it.

Now an email released under freedom of information law – and seen by The Ferret – has disclosed links between Warnock and Keiser’s company, Coul Links Limited, and C4C.

In January 2023 the company asked the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) to use Coul Farm as a postal address for golf course irrigation licences.

“We would like to change the correspondence name for Coul links Ltd to at links house,” the email said. “Or if possible to Coul Farm itself as it’s easier to collect mail etc, or indeed both.”

Coul Farm is a holiday home belonging to the Coul Links landowner, Edward Abel Smith. He has won initial planning permission for a £20m hotel development there, which is dependent on the golf course going ahead.

Coul Farm is also used as a meeting place by C4C, and is the address cited on its Facebook page. C4C told The Ferret that it was a “convenient spot” for C4C members to collect correspondence about the Sepa licences.

At the same time, C4C said it will dissolve if it wins planning permission for the golf course. “When this is all finished, C4C will disband,” the group’s spokesperson, Graham Sutherland, told a meeting of Dornoch Community Council in May 2023. “We’re only here to take the planning application through.”

Coul Links (photo thanks to Andrew Weston/Not Coul)

The disclosures have angered a local group opposing the golf course. From the moment C4C said it would disband, its promise to build an environmentally-friendly golf course “disappeared out the window”, said Dr Tom Dargie, the lead campaigner from Not Coul.

“Everything C4C since early 2021 has been a sham, their local support misled. It is now obvious that C4C is the astroturfing front for the 2017 developers, Warnock and Keiser. They will take over the planning permission, if granted.”

Dargie added: “No members of C4C have any expertise in managing a dune environment for nature conservation. Their 2023 proposals for a golf course and nature management at Coul are hugely controversial.”

He was backed by Iain Plumtree, a retired solicitor and town clerk who lives locally. The plan to disband C4C showed that it was “a stalking horse for other interests”, Plumtree told The Ferret.

“To sell or transfer a planning consent is not illegal, but an open pre-planned transfer is a valid point of interest to any planning authority and the affected community. A planning authority has the right to expect applicants to carry out any consent with the requisite skills and resources.”

Plumtree suggested C4C had conveyed the impression that the development of Coul Links “would rest in caring local hands”. But planning to disband meant that such reassurances “count for nothing”, he argued.

“It is surmised from the primary evidence being uncovered about the apparent connections between C4C and the first applicants that, in modern parlance, this has been a blatant astroturfing arrangement.”

According to the Green MSP for the Highlands and Islands, Ariane Burgess, many local residents opposed a golf course at Coul Links. “Coul Links is a spectacular site of environmental significance and has several important international environmental designations,” she said.

“Far from being the grassroots campaign it presents itself as, we know C4C is supported by the same American billionaire golf tycoon, Mike Keiser, whose previous plans for the site were rejected by ministers.”

Ramblers Scotland pointed to allegations C4C had used models as local supporters in promotional videos. “The more we learn about the renewed Coul Links bid, the more concerning it is,” said the group’s director, Brendan Paddy.

“The proposals would permanently harm access, landscape and the experience for people walking the internationally-protected dunes.”

Coul Links (photo thanks to Andrew West/Not Coul)

Communities for Coul said it was a “not-for-profit community company” with five British directors who lived around the Dornoch Firth. The company’s registered office address was a solicitor in Kelso.

“If successful, C4C has always made clear they would then ask a world-class golf developer to build the course, and were pleased to announce in 2021 that Mike Keiser had agreed to return to do this, if planning permission was achieved,” said a C4C spokesperson.

“Coul Links Limited kindly allowed C4C use of all documents, licences etc. from the first application, for the second. This has been extremely helpful for a community group who have had to raise all their funds from donations.”

The spokesperson added: “Edward Abel Smith has allowed C4C to use Coul Farm as a meeting place, since it is centrally located for members of their group. It therefore seemed a good place to use as the address on their Facebook page. It is also a convenient spot for C4C members to collect any correspondence.”

New community golf group planned

C4C director, Gordon Sutherland, said: “If the golf course receives planning approval, there is no need to be “for Coul” any longer. There will however, be a requirement for a community body to safeguard the interests of our communities and to fairly distribute the funds which will accrue from the five per cent equity share in the golf course we are being gifted.

“Although it will be a few years before profits are generated, giving ample time to determine the right vehicle and structure, current thinking is that this body will be called Coul for Communities.”

Todd Warnock and Mike Keiser did not respond to requests to comment. Warnock owns the Links House hotel in Dornoch and said in 2018 that Coul Links was a “tremendous opportunity for ecological enhancement, as well as profound economic opportunities for the Highlands”.

In 2019 Keiser was quoted as saying it would be “a great honour” to work in Scotland as the home of golf. “We would dearly love to fit Coul Links into the landscape,” he said.

“We are acutely aware of the sensitive nature of this site and will strive to enhance it.”

The email released by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency

Cover image thanks to Andrew Weston/Not Coul. This story has been published in tandem with The Sunday Post.

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