By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Golf legend Jack Nicklaus has given up a legal battle over federal accusations that his companies violated the Clean Water Act by disturbing environmentally protected wetlands in The Bear’s Club, a private golf course community he built 17 years ago.
Last month, U.S. District Judge William P. Dimitrouleas signed off on a consent decree between the federal government and The Bear’s Club Founding Partners Ltd, four related companies and three of Nicklaus’ development partners to settle a lawsuit filed last October by the Department of Justice. The defendants are required to pay a $400,000 civil penalty and offset the environmental impact done to two patches of wetlands in The Bear’s Club 369-acre property that were filled.
Eugene Stearns, a Miami-based lawyer representing The Bear’s Club Founding Partners, told Florida Bulldog that his client did not admit to any wrongdoing. “The $400,000 is a fraction of what it would cost to litigate this case to its conclusion,” Stearns said. “It was a business decision, and The Bear’s Club believes it didn’t violate any federal law.”
South Florida U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said in a statement that the $400,000 penalty “sends a message to anyone who fails to abide by our nation’s environmental laws that they will be held accountable for their non-compliance.”
He added: “When wetlands are filled in violation of the Clean Water Act, the loss is felt not only today, but by all generations to come.”
In 1999, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued Nicklaus and his business partners Ivan Charles Frederickson and Robert Whitley a permit allowing them to fill certain wetlands in their massive Jupiter property for the purpose of building a residential golf community. However, the Corps also required The Bear’s Club to preserve certain wetlands in their natural state.
According to its web site, the 270-acre The Bear’s Club was founded in 1999 by Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara. Nicklaus is chairman of the board. Membership is by invitation only.
In the complaint, government attorneys accused The Bear’s Club and its developers of filling close to an acre of wetlands in 2010 without permission from the Corps. The prosecutors alleged it was done to relocate a tee box, improve golfing conditions on the club’s 15th hole and make room for the development of five residential lots. Nicklaus and company ignored the Corps’ denial to modify the original building permit, which included an easement agreement to set aside several acres as protected wetlands, the lawsuit alleged.
Stearns disputed the government’s interpretation of what the original 1999 permit allowed The Bear’s Club to do on the property. He said his client was allowed to make changes to conservation easements as long as he received approval from the South Florida Water Management District. Stearns said The Bear’s Club did not have to go back to the Corps.
“The Bear’s Club got state approval and paid state mitigation fees,” Stearns said. “Then the feds came along and were like, ‘Oh no, we didn’t approve it.’ ”
Stearns also criticized the Corps for going after The Bear’s Club for what he called “minor infractions” when the federal agency should be focused on minimizing the impact of the contaminated runoff water from Lake Okeechobee.
“Who is pumping waste into the Indian River every day?” Stearns said. “Yet, here we are talking about two tiny areas of a golf course that is the perfect marriage between the environment and private development. The Bear’s Club has preserved more wildlife and nature than it has taken away.”