In its latest effort to restrict land use in rural areas of the Old Dominion, the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) has unleashed a concerted PR campaign aimed at blocking development of the proposed Trump National Golf Club in Albemarle County, Virginia, near Charlottesville.
In 2011, Trump Virginia Acquisitions, LLC, purchased property containing the renowned Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard (now Trump Winery) from its financially troubled owner, Patricia Kluge. The roughly 1200-acre property also is home to a now-dormant nine-hole golf course designed by Arnold Palmer. As part of its plan to make the property commercially viable while retaining its essential character, Trump wants to rehabilitate and expand the existing golf course to an 18-hole links-style course.
All told, the project will encompass 480 acres, of which 216 are under a conservation easement, which was placed on the property by Patricia Kluge in 2006. Of those 216 acres, one-fourth will be used for tees, fairways, and greens, with the rest set aside for farmland and grasslands bird habitat. (Landowners with conservation easements receive tax breaks in exchange for certain restrictions on the use of their property. Those restrictions vary from easement to easement.)
None of this suits PEC. “The thousands of potential visitors to the golf course and large-scale events venue will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the surrounding properties and rural landscape that is such an iconic part of Albemarle County,” PEC says. “In addition to traffic and noise impacts, we also have concerns about the water use, run-off, and septic issues.” PEC also notes that the property is protected with a conservation easement and claims the proposal is “inconsistent with the rural and agricultural character of the area.”
“Seasonal Outdoor Activities”
The conservation easement in question, however, specifies that “temporary or seasonal outdoors activities” not “permanently alter the physical appearance of the property.” Golf easily qualifies as an outdoor seasonal activity in Virginia, because the state’s winters are generally too cold to allow for play on a regular basis. What’s more, golf courses with conservation easements are common throughout the United States, including on courses owned by Donald Trump.
PEC’s claims about the golf course’s “traffic and noise” impacts and its effects on the county’s rural landscape also warrant closer scrutiny. Albemarle County is home to seven public and private golf courses, three of which are located in rural areas. The others occupy land situated between developed and rural areas. Contrary to the impression PEC would like to convey, golf courses are an integral part of the county’s rural landscape.
Furthermore, Albemarle County’s highways are no stranger to traffic related seasonal outdoor activities. Every fall, for example, thousands of football fans drive to the University of Virginia’s Scott Stadium (capacity 61,500) in Charlottesville to watch the Cavaliers play. After the game, they drive home, completing a ritual that is part of the university’s rich history. Thus, there is little reason to believe that the proposed 480-acre golf course will in any way be disruptive to the 762-square-mile county, or is, as PEC claims, “inconsistent with the rural and agricultural character of the area.”
“No Interest in Nuance of Depth”
Hoping to stir up public opinion against the golf course, PEC in late October teamed up with the Southern Environmental Law Center and other Green groups to host a free screening of You’ve Been Trumped in Charlottesville’s century-old Jefferson Theater. The “documentary” by filmmaker Anthony Baxter purports to tell the story of the impact the development of a Trump golf course had on a community near Aberdeen, Scotland. Excruciatingly long and bereft of any structure, the film is not only pure propaganda, it is poor propaganda.
“The sentiment is bludgeoning,” writes Calum Marsh in Slate Magazine. “The issues are complex, but You’ve Been Trumped has no interest in nuance or depth; it assumes, instead, that a juicy story and self-righteous indignation will suffice.” Added Stephen Holden of the New York Times, “There are moments when the film’s concern for the environment tilts toward sentimentality and even hysteria.”
In one of the film’s scenes, Donald Trump, on a visit to the construction site, makes disparaging remarks about tires strewn about a dilapidated farm next to the golf course. This, the film suggests, is an example of the real estate mogul’s insensitivity to rural ways. But PEC, it turns out, is of two minds when it comes to tires left outdoors.
The group oversees the conservation easement on a farm owned by Martha Boneta in Fauquier County, Virginia. Like many farmers, Boneta keeps tires outside on her property where they are used to help hallow fields for plowing, train animals to move in a certain direction, and assist in planting. PEC sued Boneta, saying the tires violated her agricultural conservation easement, and she was forced to store them in an enclosure.
The message is unmistakable: When tires are kept outside on a farm in northeastern Scotland, over 3,500 miles away, they can be seen as an authentic part of rural life. But when they are on a property in the same county as PEC’s headquarters, they must be removed.
In the first step in what promises to be a protracted legal and political fight, Trump Virginia Acquisitions, LLC, has requested a special use permit (SUP) with the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors (BOS). A hearing is set on the request in the near future. The BOS can either approve or disapprove the SUP or punt the decision to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), a body created by the Virginia General Assembly that oversees conservations easement, including the one on the Trump property. Proponents and opponents of the proposed golf course are letting their views be known to the BOS.
One of the more intriguing comments came from Scott A. York, chairman of the Loudoun County BOS. In an October 3 letter to his colleagues in Albemarle County, York summarized his county’s experience with the Trump National Washington, D.C., Golf Course. “They have invested millions, contributed to our job growth, and helped raise real estate values in the area they are located.”
Described by investigative journalist Kevin Mooney as “arguably the most politically powerful special interest group in Virginia,” Warrenton, Virginia, based PEC can be expected to be relentless in its opposition to the Trump project. Casting itself as David against Goliath, PEC is likely to make the most of the fundraising opportunity a high-profile fight with Trump offers.
Twenty years ago, PEC spearheaded an effort that succeeded in blocking Disney from opening a theme park in Prince William County, Virginia. A similar victory over Trump would only whet PEC’s appetite to impose its land-use vision elsewhere in rural Virginia. The ultimate losers would be small family farmers and the rural businesses that serve them.
After the screening of You’ve Been Trumped, PEC President Chris Miller reaffirmed his organization’s commitment to “comprehensive planning” of the Commonwealth’s rural areas. In this spirit, Miller also has commented that farms near or adjacent to properties with conservation easements should be under a similar level of scrutiny in land-use-related decisions.