A US developer has come under fierce fire after complaining that his plan for a golf course on a wildlife site in north east Scotland had been delayed by “extremely restrictive” environmental rules.
Mike Keiser, a golf entrepreneur from Chicago who made millions from a greeting card company, claimed that his plans for Coul Links north of the Dornoch Firth had been blocked by government “bureaucracies” and “people who hate development of any kind”.
In a US podcast for golf enthusiasts, Keiser also said that Donald Trump had “rankled a lot of people” with his golf resort at Menie on the Aberdeenshire coast – and that people blamed this for making it more difficult to win approval for Coul Links.
Environmental groups reacted angrily to Keiser’s remarks, describing them as “an outrage” and accusing him of being “worryingly dismissive” of expert concerns. They contrasted his comments with the online branding of the Coul Links development as “an environmentally friendly golf links”.
Along with US property developer, Todd Warnock, Keiser applied in 2017 for planning permission for a £10 million championship golf course at Coul Links near the village of Embo. But the plan ran into widespread opposition because the course threatened a unique network of sand dunes home to rare and endangered plants, insects and animals.
The application was given the go-ahead by Highland councillors against the advice of officials and then called in for consideration by the Scottish Government. It was the subject of a public inquiry in Clashmore, near Dornoch, during February and March 2019, and planning reporters are now preparing to make recommendations to Scottish ministers.
Keiser was interviewed at length in May on a US golfing podcast called ‘No Laying Up’. He is regarded as a celebrity in the sport since he built one of the world’s most admired links courses at Bandon Dunes in Oregon in 1999, and has been described as Trump’s golf business rival.
He claimed that Highland Council had approached Warnock asking him to build a links golf course to encourage golfers to stay overnight at Dornoch. This prompted a search which found the “gorgeous” and “magical” site at Coul Links, Keiser said.
But he complained that he and Warnock had since “waited for three and a half years for it to grind through the bureaucracy of the very same government that encouraged us to find a site.”
He predicted that they were “probably three, four, five months away” from starting work. Scotland, he pointed out, was in the European Union (EU) and had to abide by its environmental rules.
“They have these extremely restrictive covenants and statutes about what you can and can’t do in the sensitive dunes,” he said.
“You face first governmental groups, which are bureaucracies that put you through a two to three year schedule of ‘check all the boxes.’”
Keiser added: “And then, the people who hate development of any kind, usually based in big cities – and we’ve got four of them fronting us from London, who are saying: ‘We don’t want any development whatsoever. We don’t care if it’s a golf course or a bowling alley. We want no golf.’
“Even though golf impacts 70 acres at the most, they fight like crazy for anything in the dunes…And it takes a while just to convince everyone that there are only a small number of people who are against golf and tourism in the highlands of Scotland.”
Keiser was then asked whether the prolonged arguments over Trump’s golf links in north east Scotland had helped. “People over there say you didn’t make it any better by having Donald Trump go before you,” he said.
“He has rankled a lot of people, I can’t tell you just why. He promised to build this huge resort and he’s only done 18 holes which I hear are very good in Aberdeen.
“But I’ve had a number of people tell me that if it weren’t for Trump, you would have gotten approval by now, so you can sort of pick your theory. I don’t have one. I’m just waiting to get approval.”
His remarks prompted a chorus of criticism from campaigners. Ramblers Scotland highlighted the “markedly different tone” taken on the developers’ website suggesting that Coul Links was a “very progressive, environmentally conscious project”.
The outdoors group’s director, Brendan Paddy, said: “Mike Keiser’s unguarded comments to the US golf media reveal a worryingly dismissive attitude to the fears of conservation experts and concerned residents – and to Scottish and EU environmental law, which he portrays as a box-checking exercise.”
He added: “We believe the course could permanently alter the special landscape, restrict access and fundamentally change the experience for residents and visitors seeking solitude in the unspoilt dunes.”
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) described Keiser’s comments as “an outrage”. It called on Scottish ministers to show that they have “moved beyond the disastrous decision” that allowed Trump to destroy a wildlife site.
“The fact that the developer talks about the inconvenience of European environmental rules that prevent Scotland’s most prized assets being damaged by unrestricted developments is very alarming,” said RSPB Scotland’s head of planning, Aedán Smith.
“The claims that Highland Council proactively approached the developer looking to sell off the best and most highly-protected parts of their natural environment are extremely concerning,” he added.
“We hope that the council is able to clarify their role in what seems to be, at best, an unorthodox and highly irregular approach to the management of protected wildlife sites.”
These candid comments suggest the legal protections that safeguard important sites for wildlife are simply seen by Mike Keiser as obstacles to be overcome. Scott Leatham, Scottish Wildlife Trust
The Scottish Wildlife Trust pointed out that more that 90,000 people had signed a petition opposing the Coul Links development. “These candid comments suggest the legal protections that safeguard important sites for wildlife are simply seen by Mike Keiser as obstacles to be overcome,” said the trust’s policy specialist, Scott Leatham.
“We know that nature is in crisis – we mustn’t be complacent about Scotland’s wildlife refuges. More than ever, we need Scottish ministers to live up to their pledges to protect the natural environment.”
The local action group, Not Coul, accused the developers of betraying their insecurity. “They must be worried that the costs of an expensive but deficient application and subsequent four-week public inquiry will now be money lost forever,” said the group’s chair, Tom Dargie.
“The idea that objectors to the Coul Links golf course application could use Mr Trump’s Menie development to criticise the proposals for Coul links is as absurd as it is far-fetched.”
Coul Links was a triple-designated wildlife site “as precious an environmental asset as any to be found in Scotland”, Dargie added. “This is no place for golf.”
“If Mr Keiser truly respected the sites brought to him on a plate, he would see that, withdraw his support, and show proper deference and respect to nature’s wonder.”
Plantlife Scotland argued that Scotland must not contribute to the “catastrophic declines” in wildlife globally. “There is plenty of room for another golf course in Scotland, but it doesn’t have to be on one of the most important sites for wildlife in the whole of the UK,” said the group’s Alistair Whyte.
Highland Council could not confirm Keiser’s suggestion that it had encouraged the development of a golf links. “We do not recognise these claims and further details would be required before considering whether to make a comment,” said a council spokesperson.
The Ferret reported in February 2018 that rural economy minister Fergus Ewing’s most senior civil servant, Liz Ditchburn, had intervened “in a facilitative role” on Coul Links. She visited the site in 2017 and convened a meeting at St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh for the developers to present their plans to officials.
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The developers did not respond to requests to comment. Warnock has previously accused conservationists of making “gross generalisations” that were “naive and irrelevant.”
He said: “We are confident Coul Links offers a tremendous opportunity for ecological enhancement, as well as profound economic opportunities for the highlands.”
On the developer’s website, Keiser is praised for “some of the most environmentally conscious yet financially successful golf courses in the world”. He became a conservationist after his father instructed him “to always leave a campsite nicer than we found it”, he said.
Keiser is also quoted as saying it would be “a great honour” to work again in Scotland as the home of golf. “We would dearly love to fit Coul Links into the landscape,” he added.
“We are acutely aware of the sensitive nature of this site and will strive to enhance it.”
Cover photo thanks to Craig Allardyce and dune heath photo thanks to Andrew Weston. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.