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Trump Hits into Rough in Scotland: Sand and Farmer Trap
 Plans for "The World's Greatest Golf Resort"
By Tom Hundley, Chicago TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Dec. 6, 2007 - BALMEDIE, Scotland -- Donald Trump, the Barnum-esque New York property developer, has swept into this small seaside community with grandiose plans to build "The World's Greatest Golf Resort."

But the local zoning commission wants to protect a scientifically significant sand dune. And a crusty farmer named Michael Forbes refuses to sell his 23 acres that sit right smack in the middle of Trump's dream.

If you think you've already seen the movie version of this story, you have. It was a 1983 classic called "Local Hero" with Burt Lancaster in The Donald role, playing a Texas oil tycoon who wants to buy up an entire Scottish fishing village and turn it into a terminal for North Sea oil exploration.

In the movie, the locals are eager to sell out to the rich American; in real life Balmedie, a lot of locals think Trump's golf resort is a swell idea.

At this point, some of the parallels break down. Building a golf course in the cradle of golf isn't exactly the same as building an oil terminal. And Balmedie isn't a remote fishing village; it's a bedroom suburb of Aberdeen, the prosperous hub of Scotland's booming North Sea oil business.

According to the glossy brochures and PowerPoint presentations, Trump's $2 billion project will include two championship courses, a five-star hotel, a golf academy and spa, 950 time-share vacation villas and 500 luxury homes that will sell for a minimum of $1 million.

"I want to do something very, very special in Scotland. We intend to build the world's greatest golf course," Trump said in a video presentation that was played at a local council hearing.

Trump expects buyers for his luxury homes to come from America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. He also apparently expects them to overlook the reality that for most of the year the climate in this part of northern Scotland is chilly, rainy and exceedingly windy. There are reasons the area remains pristine and sparsely populated.

Sunny forecast

Trump is not concerned. "I don't know what it is, but every time I've been there the weather is beautiful," he said in a telephone interview from his Manhattan headquarters. "Anyway, it's a seasonal business."

Last month the local council approved the project by 7-3 vote and the deal looked set to proceed. But last week, the Aberdeenshire Council's infrastructure services committee voted it down, 8-7.

The main sticking point is a large, slowly migrating sand dune that has been officially designated a "site of significant scientific interest." Trump proposes to stabilize it by planting grass on top of it. His opponents on the committee say that's against the law.

His opponents also have doubts about whether their coastline, beautiful in its bleak austerity, can absorb Trump's 10-story Gothic hotel and all the rest of it.

But the biggest obstacle may be Trump himself, according to the locals.

"I think we could have come to an accommodation about what is a reasonable use of the site, but all we heard from Donald Trump was 'No, I don't negotiate. It's all or nothing. Give it to me now,'" said Debra Storr, a member of both the local council and the infrastructure committee.

"If that's your stance, the other side's only choice is to say no. Donald Trump gave us no choice," she said.

And then there's Michael Forbes. In the movie version of this story, an old beachcomber named Ben Knox refuses to sell his prime piece of property to the big oil company. In real life, Forbes, a burly 55-year-old salmon fisherman and farmer, is happy to play that role.

Forbes' 23-acre farm is the hole in Trump's 1,400-acre doughnut. It's a working farm, with chickens and geese wandering about and rusting machinery scattered here and there. His mother, Molly, lives in a double-wide parked on the grounds. Forbes worked 15 years on offshore oil rigs to earn enough to buy the place. He calls it his paradise, and he's not about to sell it to a man who publicly ridiculed it as "disgusting."

The two men have met once, and by Forbes account it ended in a swearing match.

"He thinks we're all a bunch of cabbages," said Forbes.

Trump says there was no swearing match. "I met him once. I found him to be a very nice guy," said the New Yorker, who characterized Forbes as a "rough, tough" character.

'I'd rather give it away'

Trump offered Forbes $700,000 for his property, and later raised it to $750,000 -- not much, considering the starting price for one of Trump's golf course houses is $1 million.

But Forbes isn't listening to any offers. "I'd rather give it away than sell to Trump," he said.

Trump replied that Forbes' land is no longer needed. "If I get approval, his land is worthless," he said.

George Sorial, Trump's director of international development, said that in addition to the initial $2 billion investment, the proposed resort would create hundreds of jobs and inject about $100 million into the local economy each year. Building it, he said, was in Scotland's "national interest."

Not surprisingly, the project has won the enthusiastic backing of the Aberdeen business community, the local media and politicians at the highest levels of the Scottish government.

Geoff Runcie, chief executive of the Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce, thinks the golf resort "will give us an association with Trump's global brand reach" and help make Scotland's northeast coast a tourist destination.

Brian Adam, a member of the Scottish Parliament from Aberdeen, argues that planting a golf course on the dunes would actually be good for the environment, better than leaving the dunes to the mercy of wind and water.

And homeowners in Balmedie are convinced that having the famous resort as a neighbor will boost their property values.

But at least one local businessman says they've all succumbed to Trump's charms.

"It's glitz and glitter he's selling, and the people here have bought it," said Mickey Foote, who runs a waste management company but is better known for his earlier career as producer for The Clash, the iconic band of the 1970s and '80s.

"They all think they're going to swan in, play a round of golf, use the spa, maybe bump into Tiger Woods ... but this is going to be a gated community for very rich people," he said, noting that Aberdeenshire was an area where people rarely locked their doors and have long been accustomed to roaming where they please.

Foote, who lives on a farm that abuts Trump's property, has helped organize a group called Sustainable Aberdeenshire that is trying to block -- or at least downsize -- Trump's project. It seems to be gaining some traction.

"People are starting to listen to us," he said.

After the infrastructure committee rejected Trump's application last week, Trump declined to appeal or to revise his plans. Instead, he issued an ultimatum: Reverse the decision or he would take the project to Northern Ireland. He set a 30-day deadline.

Trump denied that it was an ultimatum. "The thing is, I had some alternatives that were very strong," he said.

Ultimatum or not, it brought the Scottish government scurrying. In a highly unusual maneuver, the Scottish Executive announced Tuesday that it was relieving the Aberdeenshire Council of its authority in the matter because the golf resort raised "issues of importance that require consideration at a national level."

For the record, Trump claims he has never seen "Local Hero."

"Give me a break," he said.

thundley@tribune.com

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