BALMEDIE, Scotland — David Milne flies the Mexican flag along with Scotland’s colors at his home in a former coast guard station here with views overlooking Trump International Golf Links. It’s his way of sending a message to the man who now occupies the White House.
Long before the world received an inkling of what type of president that a billionaire New York real-estate mogul would make, Milne and other residents of this small coastal community on a wild stretch of northeastern Scotland bore witness to a Donald Trump who, they said, makes grandiose claims and resorts to bullying and other unsavory tactics to get his way.
“He says he will give you the earth and gives you a handful of dirt,” said Milne, 53, a health-and-safety consultant for the oil and gas industry.
Milne and his wife are among the property owners who are entangled in a decade-long David vs. Goliath battle with Trump over his attempt to transform more than 600 acres of rolling farmland and environmentally important sand dunes into a world-class golf course and resort.
Just last week, Scotland’s Environment Protection Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage, a conversation group, expressed fresh concerns about how the development plans could contravene rules on sewage pollution, groundwater and dune preservation.
Yet Trump’s son, Eric, said during a visit to Scotland in late July that the Trump Organization was ready to start the next stage of the development, a move that those who live next to the course fear could force them to sell.
Trump previously denied he would consider using compulsory purchases — a legal maneuver similar to eminent domain — to expand. Yet letters drafted by Trump’s lawyers and sent to local planning officials in 2009 and seen by USA TODAY show his company has considered the tactic, which allows property for projects in the public interest to be acquired against the owners’ will. Trump International Golf Links did not respond to a request for clarification.
Supporters of the development argue that it’s become a vital lifeline for a region far too dependent on the oil industry and that the project elevated the area’s prestige by associating with the Trump brand.
Opponents say the course and its amenities are nothing like what was promised, don’t appear to be popular with golfers and may be abandoned by Trump if he fails to block a wind turbine farm that will sit 3 miles off the coast when it becomes operational early next year.
“Most of us, even those who aren’t too keen on wind farms, are thrilled this is happening because Trump has said if it does go ahead, he won’t do any more developing,” said Sue Edwards, 62, an anti-Trump activist who regularly walks her dog on Trump’s land and a parallel strip of pristine beach — permitted under Scottish public-access laws.
The turbines — 11 in total — are expected to generate about 70% of the energy for the city of Aberdeen, 9 miles south of here, according to Adam Ezzamel, the engineer who directs the project for Vattenfall, a Swedish power company. Trump has called the initiative a “blight” on the landscape.
“He assumes he can do whatever he likes and people will just do as they are told,” said Milne, whose house looks over the dunes and to the North Sea beyond. Trump partially blocked that view with a row of trees and sent Milne a $3,500 bill for a fence his company built around Milne’s garden.
Just as Mexico said it won’t pay for a border wall that Trump wants. Milne said he won’t pay, either. He tore up the bill. Hence, the Mexican flag.
Milne said that in 2009, Trump offered about $260,000 for his house and its one-fifth acre of land. Trump threw in some jewelry, a golf club membership, use of a spa (not yet built) and the right to buy, at cost, a house in a related development (not yet constructed). Milne valued the offer at about half the market rate.
Fake golf or making Scotland great again?
Trump International Golf Links is one of three golf resorts the president and his family own in Europe. Two are in Scotland; one is in Ireland. Two other international courses are located in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The remaining 12 are in the United States. Since becoming president, Trump has formally ceded control of his businesses to his sons, although he has struggled to shake off perceptions that his complex portfolio of properties and investments around the world create a massive conflict of interest.
In Scotland, where Trump plays up his Scottish roots — his mother was born on the Isle of Lewis and emigrated to the U.S. in 1929 — he has encountered stiff resistance to the development plan here, although some local business leaders and residents support it.
“The course has become a key part of our tourism offer,” said James Bream, director of policy at Aberdeen’s Chamber of Commerce. “Trump has created a new emphasis for visitors, including many Americans, to spend money in this part of the country on golf and activities associated with golf such as accommodations, bars and restaurants.”
Stewart Spence, the owner of a luxury hotel in Aberdeen who describes himself as a close Trump ally and confidante to his sons, Eric and Donald Jr., agreed. “What Trump has already given us we will have for generations, and it is unbelievable,” he said. “Never in our wildest dreams did we expect it. It’s absolutely world class.”
Spence said Trump gave him honorary life membership to the club. “My certificate says 001. The night Donald presented me with it he said, ‘I have only given out one other and it’s 007, to Sean Connery,'” the Scottish James Bond actor, he explained.
Vic Henderson, 88, who used to work as a farm hand and engineer on Trump’s land when it was under different ownership, said Trump had done a “great thing.”
“He’s been tremendous. He’s brought the place alive,” he said.
Hanging on Henderson’s wall in his small farmhouse is a letter Trump wrote in 2007 thanking him for his “ongoing public support for our project.”
The enthusiasm Spence, Henderson and others have for the project doesn’t appear to match the reality of what’s on the ground.
According to planning documents, public accounts and his own statements, Trump promised to invest $1.5 billion in the project. He has spent $100 million. He vowed 6,000 jobs. There are 150. Two golf courses were promised. There’s one.
Instead of a 450-room luxury hotel and hundreds of time-share apartments that Trump pledged to build, there is a 16-room boutique hotel and a small clubhouse with a restaurant and shop that sells Trump whisky, leather hip flasks and various golf paraphernalia. Financial accounts show the resort lost over $1 million last year.
In a statement, Trump International Golf Links said it plans “a multi-phased development and long-term investment project” here. It said the “Trump Organization enjoys a great relationship with all of its neighboring properties and businesses, with the exception of a few known opponents who have fought the project since the outset.” It did not address a question about Trump’s feelings about the wind turbine farm or the objections raised by environmental agencies.
Spence, the hotelier who said he has a close relationship with the Trumps, said he has persuaded Eric and Donald Jr. “not to spend another penny” in Aberdeen because the area is in a significant economic downturn linked to the slumping oil business. Oil now sells for less than $50 a barrel, compared to more than $100 a barrel a few years ago.
“The government’s advocacy for this project was based on the idea of a trickle-down benefit of being associated with a world-class celebrity. That has now been completely inverted because Trump is a complete embarrassment,” said Martin Ford, a local government official who chaired a 2006 planning committee that voted to reject Trump’s development plan over concerns about its environmental impact.
The sand dunes in and around the course are often described as Scotland’s equivalent to the Amazon rainforest: ancient, unspoiled, biodiverse. Scottish National Heritage and other conservation groups labeled them a site of special scientific interest.
“The justification for this was that Trump would bring lots of jobs to the area and vast economic development. None of that has happened,” said Ford, whose decision to turn down Trump’s plan was overturned by the Scottish government on a legal technicality.
“Which part of Trump’s reputation are we now benefiting from?” Ford added, referring to issues that have dogged Trump’s presidency, from Russian election meddling to his efforts to impose a travel ban for some Muslim nations and his withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.
In 2015, Aberdeen-based Robert Gordon University revoked an honorary degree it awarded Trump for his achievements as an entrepreneur and businessman because of his remarks about Muslims being terrorists in the run-up to his presidential campaign.
Ford and Anne Stirling, a local government official who supports the development and played a role in overturning the initially rejected planning application, said they were unaware of any economic-impact studies related to the project.
Bream, from Aberdeen’s Chamber of Commerce, also did not know of any such studies. The Trump Organization said its investment in northeastern Scotland “was crucial to the economic future of the region” and the area was a “leading golf destination,” but it did not offer any evidence beyond attributing it to “the Trump Effect.”
Mr. Trump’s Neighborhood
Trump has had an unquestionable impact on some of his Aberdeen area neighbors.
After John and Susan Munro refused to sell their home to Trump, he built a 15-foot-high bank of earth on two sides of their house on a half-acre plot that obliterated their sweeping views across open land to a lighthouse in the distance.
And for the Forbes family, his presence here has been nothing short of a nightmare.
“We’ve had a taste of Trump for 11 years. I wouldn’t trust him with anything,” said Sheila Forbes, 70. She has lived on land that borders Trump’s with her husband, Michael, a farmer and fisherman, for more than 40 years. The Forbeses claim that Trump’s workers have harassed them since they refused to sell their property and its 24 acres for what they, too, said was an offer at half the market value.
In one especially troubling allegation, the couple said Trump’s workers sabotaged a water pipe that left them and Michael Forbes’ 92-year-old mother, who lives in her own nearby house, without clean drinking water for five years.
“We’re going to fight him to the very end,” Sheila Forbes said, adding that Trump was “nae mair (no more) Scottish than a flea in the air.”
Trump has publicly called Michael Forbes a “disgrace” who “lives like a pig.”
Trump International Golf Links said it “vigorously refutes” the allegations made by the Forbeses. It said five years ago, its workers unintentionally disrupted an underground pipe that runs into an “antiquated, makeshift ‘well'” jointly owned by the Forbeses on Trump land, but it was repaired immediately. The company said it has always treated the Forbes family and its neighbors with “courtesy and consideration.”
Milne, who has a new Mexican flag on order after the last one ripped, said, “When someone comes and along and tries to kick you out, I’m afraid the heels dig in.”
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