By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Golf legend Jack Nicklaus is in legal hot water with the U.S. Department of Justice over construction work his companies performed on environmentally protected wetlands at The Bear’s Club, a 369-acre private golf course community in Jupiter which the six-time Masters champion co-developed in 1999.
In a federal lawsuit filed to little notice in October, government attorneys allege four Nicklaus-owned entities filled close to an acre of wetlands in 2010 without permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in order to relocate a tee box, improve golfing conditions on the club’s 15th hole and make room for the development of five residential lots.
The lawsuit claims The Bear’s Club developers ignored the Corps’ denial to modify the original building permit, which included an easement agreement to set aside several acres as protected wetlands.
The Corps found out The Bear’s Club had filled the wetlands from the South Florida Water Management District on Oct. 27, 2010, the complaint states.
Federal prosecutors contend The Bear’s Club and its owners had “economic motive for seeking the modification.” The initiation fee for a golf membership at The Bear’s Club is $90,000 and the annual fee is $25,000, according to the complaint, which also named Nicklaus’ development partner Clarendon Properties Group and its owners, Ivan Charles Frederickson and Robert Whitley.
The government has asked the court to order the defendants to undertake, at their own expense and at the direction of the Army Corps, measures to mitigate the damages caused by their violations of the permit and the Clean Water Act.
Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice spokesman, said the department doesn’t comment on pending litigation. Eugene Stearns, the Miami attorney for The Bear’s Club and its partners, said his clients deny the allegations.
“The lawsuit is puzzling for a number of reasons,” Stearns told FloridaBulldog.org. “We believe it is a tempest in a teapot. We don’t believe we violated the agreement with the Corps.”
Last month Stearns filed a motion to dismiss the government’s complaint, alleging the Corps doesn’t have jurisdiction over the wetlands in dispute.
“The easement expressly provides that it can be altered or amended,” Stearns’ motion states. “It also expressly provides that the state and only the state and the South Florida Water Management District possesses the power to grant amendments. The appropriate state agency authorized the very work the Corps alleges was unlawfully undertaken.”
Nicklaus’ attorney also disputed the negative impact of filling the wetlands.
“The tee box required building a pad on a relatively small piece of wetlands,” Stearns said in an interview. “The change near the 15th hole was a result of people hitting balls into area that would get really muddy when it rained. If you go out there, you’ll see the wetland area is still very beautiful.”
In a response to Stearns’ motion, Justice Department lawyer Andrew James Doyle asserts the Corps does have jurisdiction over the wetlands under the Clean Water Act. The Bear’s Club violated the easement agreement by filling wetlands that were “not to be disturbed by any dredging, filling, land clearing, agricultural activities, or any other construction whatsoever,” Doyle wrote.
He added that wetlands “were to be preserved in perpetuity as a purely natural area.”
“Defendants filled the wetlands for the purpose of making the golf course easily playable for weaker players,” Doyle wrote.