Conservation group says Trump golf course violates easement policy

Donald Trump has already stamped his logo on the Kluge Winery and Vineyards, and plans to convert the 217-acre front lawn into a world-class golf course. Donald Trump has already stamped his logo on the Kluge Winery and Vineyards, and plans to convert the 217-acre front lawn into a world-class golf course.

Donald and Eric Trump already own 14 golf courses worldwide, with locations across the United States and in Scotland and Puerto Rico, but they don’t have one in Albemarle County, yet. Three years after paying $6.2 million for the Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard,  the Trumps bought the 217-acre lawn in front of Patricia Kluge’s mansion at auction for $6.5 million, and recently announced a plan to convert the property into an 18-hole public golf course. The statewide conservation nonprofit that holds an easement on the property has other ideas.

Patricia Kluge, as a trustee of the John Kluge Jr. Trust, signed onto an easement with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) in 2006, which states that it encourages preservation of natural, scenic, historic, open-space, and recreational land in Virginia.

A memo from VOF stewardship specialist Tracy Hibbitts said golf courses don’t fit the bill.

“It was noted that VOF’s current practice is not to accept easements with golf courses,” reads the memo.

Eric Trump,  executive vice president of development and acquisitions for the Trump Organization, doesn’t anticipate any complications in constructing the 18 holes, and said the easement shouldn’t affect the process.

“Obviously we’re allowed to do it,” said Trump, who argued that the easement language  negates the VOF’s ability to stop the project. “We’ve had a lot of discussions with these guys [at VOF], and they’re all overwhelmingly supportive.”

Correspondence between Trump’s representatives and the VOF imply otherwise.

“You can’t just get rid of an easement,” said VOF spokesman Jason McGarvey. “We offered our response to that in 2011, and our answer hasn’t changed.”

The memo noted that with the easement comes a partnership, and expressed concern about the disagreement.

“VOF pointed out that the concern is not just for the landowner, but for the easement holder,” reads the memo, which describes a discussion with Trump’s environmental consultant and Audubon Society member Ed Russo. He argued that Trump’s golf courses are “typically like nature preserves.”

When the Trumps purchased the property two years ago and originally proposed the idea of a golf course, the VOF responded with a series of letters stating that it simply was not allowed.

“The Easement does not reserve an ‘absolute right’ to build a seasonal, commercial golf course,” reads a 2011 letter from Hibbitts. “For a number of years it has been the VOF’s policy to not take easements on properties that would be used for a commercial golf course. This is in keeping with the general view that such a use would not have the conservation values required under Section 170(h) of the Internal Revenue Code for the gift of such an easement to be tax deductible.”

Albemarle County Supervisor Chris Dumler said he’s worried about a luxury golf course coming to his Scottsville district for a number of reasons, and shares the VOF’s environmental stance.

“…I have concerns about how a golf course might impact the existing infrastructure in the area, the sensitive environmental features in the region, its consistency with the natural resource and agricultural preservation [tenets] expressed in the Comprehension Plan with regard to the rural areas, and the potential to impact to the Monticello Watershed,” Dumler said.

VOF attorney Kerry Hutcherson said the agency can’t predict what legal steps will proceed if the Trumps move forward with the golf course.

“Can you get out of an easement? The uncomplicated answer, if it’s a perpetual easement, is no,” Hutcherson said. “But there are limited exceptions when you could.”

In a 2011 letter to VOF, Trump’s attorney Jason Greenblatt uses exact language from the deed of easement to argue for the golf course, explaining that industrial or commercial activities other than “temporary or seasonal outdoor activities that do not permanently alter the physical appearance of the Property, and that do not diminish the conservation values herein protected” are prohibited.

“A golf course, naturally, is a commercial activity that clearly meets the requirements,” Greenblatt says in the letter.

Trump has a reputation for creating elaborate golf courses, with sparkling fountains and flawless, luscious greens. But with a rise in concern about the environment has come a shift in priorities among golfers and architects, and experts say even the Trumps are taking to more modest designs.

Trump has consulted with Texas-based design team Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to design the course, but Coore said they have not signed on to the project.

“I can assure you, we do not know if the Trumps are going to actually build a golf course there, and if so, if we are going to be the ones to do it,” he said.

The process of designing a golf course hinders on the land’s natural contours and features, Coore said, and whether construction will enhance its existing values.

“It’s about finding sites that require as little grading as possible,” Coore said. “If we can find sites that require very little alteration, then it automatically leads to being more sensitive.”

Experts describe Coore and Crenshaw as “minimalist” architects.

“They do these old-fashioned, early American-style courses. They’re scruffy around the edges,” said Golf Digest Architecture Editor Ron Whitten. “Not at all what you think of when you think of a Donald Trump product.”

Whitten said golfers have recently begun to appreciate the “imperfections in the game of golf,” which often means playing on a course that demands less water and uses fewer chemicals. Architects are making strides to be more environmentally friendly, and he said a golf course is actually better for natural ecosystems than agricultural land, which is permitted under the easement.

“It’s an uphill battle that we in the golf industry fight with those who don’t play golf and don’t bother to really investigate and find out what’s behind it,” Whitten said.

Ed Russo said the property has the potential for expanded habitats of threatened and endangered grassland birds like the bobolink and eastern meadowlark.

“This particular parcel has significant environmentally sensitive areas that can be enhanced and improved,” Russo said. “The golf course that the Trump people are considering provides unique opportunities to expand some very important habitats that are there.”

Russo admitted that several years ago he was of the opinion that golf courses, with their fertilizers and excessive water use, were damaging to the environment. But he said the Trumps have supported every environmental initiative he’s proposed in his 12 years with the company, and he now sees the construction of golf courses as a way to enhance stream stabilization, erosion control, and wildlife conservation.

“If you do it right, and maintain these areas in a very specific way, you will find that the opportunity for golf to be an environmental improvement is significant,” Russo said.

Whitten compared the potential of this project to Trump International Golf Links, a $150 million course on the east coast of Scotland that Trump calls “the greatest golf course anywhere in the world.” He said it’s a prime example of how golf is going back to a more natural, classic style, and hopes to see a similar design in Albemarle County.

But that course has also been controversial. It has come under scrutiny from locals and environmentalists, and according to U.S. and British news reports, the Trump Organization is gearing up for a legal battle over a windmill park approved for nearby land that will allegedly obstruct the view of the ocean.

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