EMBO, SCOTLAND - A five-year saga in the life of a new links golf course just came to an end, but not with the resolution that developers or golfers would have hoped.
Late last week, the BBC reported that the Scottish government had formally struck down a proposal to build a new golf course called Coul Links near Dornoch, Scotland. The main developers of the project were Mike Keiser and fellow American Todd Warnock, who lives in Dornoch and operates the Links House hotel near Royal Dornoch Golf Club.
Coul Links was to be the Scotland debut of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who have designed courses at all of Keiser's projects in North America: Bandon Dunes (Bandon Trails and The Preserve, plus the upcoming Sheep Ranch), Sand Valley Golf Resort (the original Sand Valley course) and Cabot (Cabot Cliffs, the second 18-hole layout at the resort). In addition, the duo designed Lost Farm at Barnbougle Dunes, a resort in Tasmania in which Keiser partnered with owner Richard Sattler.
Because the proposed routing of the course was to sit on more than 30 acres of unspoiled dunes, part of Loch Fleet, a more than 3,000-acre area formally designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) by the Scottish government. Some 34 acres of the proposed Coul Links golf course were within this area.
In response to the area of potential disturbance, significant and vocal opposition arose as soon as the project was announced back in 2015. Nevertheless, Warnock and Keiser's plans cleared several apparent hurdles before the February 21 refusal letter issued by The Scottish government's Directorate for Local Government and Communities, which cited anticipated "significant adverse" effect on "an unusually rich assemblage of butterflies and moths, including some rare species," as well as dune juniper, local migratory and breeding bird populations. This comes in spite of an earlier revision to the plan in which Warnock had stated that concerns over interruptions to bird life had been alleviated.
Furthermore, the report asserts that the building of the golf course would make it more difficult for the public to enjoy the dunes. "The reporters conclude that the relatively unrestricted public access which is currently enjoyed would be materially constrained," it reads.
The report fully acknowledges that Coul Links stood to have a positive economic impact on the areas in and around Dornoch. Developer projections included the creation of up to 250 new area jobs and the infusion of up to £60 million over the first decade of operations.
In the end, as Planning Minister Kevin Stewart was quoted by The Press and Journal, "Reporters have concluded that the harmful impacts of this development to protected habitats and species would outweigh the potential socio-economic benefits."
Recent Scotland courses built on SSSI have mixed results
Coul Links would not have been the first golf course built on one of Scotland's SSSIs, but recent interactions between another golf developer and the environment about 150 miles down the coast may have had an effect on public opinion of the project and the ultimate decision against it.
That developer is United States president Donald Trump, who developed the Trump International Golf Links on the Menie Estate near Aberdeen in 2012. That course was built on an SSSI site called Foveran Links. Per a Guardian article recapping 2018 reports by Scottish Natural Heritage, the course "has affected the natural morphology of the dunes and interfered with natural processes. Most of its important geomorphological features have been lost or reduced to fragments." The report also describes the dunes within the Foveran Links SSSI as "partially destroyed" to the point where, in 2019, the government proposed to remove SSSI status from the site, a process that is ongoing and on which a decision is expected later this year.
It was a far cry from Trump's pre-development statement that the site would be “environmentally enhanced and better than it was before.” In a statement, the resort's executive vice president Sarah Malone claimed the Foveran Links site was "in poor condition when we purchased the land" and that "[v]ery few, if any, landowners invest in, and understand, the ecological and environmental properties of an SSSI like we do."
Throughout the process, Trump has been used as an example of what could happen at Coul Links, despite the differences in approach between Trump and Keiser.
By contrast, in 2009, the David McLay Kidd-designed Machrihanish Dunes opened, located within an SSSI of the same name. Machrihanish Dunes and its parent company Southworth have held to strict standards of maintenance so as to disturb the landscape in which the course sits minimally, if at all. It also helps that when building the course, Kidd only shaped greens and tees, leaving the contours between undisturbed.
Those who are familiar with the likes of Bandon Dunes and Cabot know that Keiser's philosophy hews much more toward stewardship of the land than Trump's approach, but it appears fear of a repeat of the damage to Foveran Links may have poisoned the public's attitude toward any links golf development on SSSI sites in Scotland for the forseeable future.