Trump's other wall: Irish town is latest battleground
Updated 1:17 PM ET, Fri February 24, 2017
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Doonbeg, Ireland (CNN)Donald Trump wants to build a wall. But it's not the one you're thinking of.
About 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) from the US on the other side of the Atlantic, a familiar debate between local residents of an Irish town and environmental activists is in full swing.
Three years ago, Trump bought a golf course and resort in the rural village of Doonbeg, County Clare. Set along 4.5 kilometers (2.8 miles) of Ireland's Atlantic-swept coastline, the location is picture perfect, but it has one significant problem: erosion.
The course's 14th hole has eroded, with the 18th, 5th and 9th severely damaged in a series of unusually fierce storms in 2014.
Trump's solution? A coastal erosion wall to protect the golf course's sand dunes from being reclaimed by the sea.
Among locals we spoke to in the tight-knit community, there is almost unanimous support for the wall's construction.
With up to a quarter of the village residents reliant on the jobs the golf course creates, many in Doonbeg say opposition comes from an environmental elite.
"We're not Trump fans or haters," local cow farmer John Flanagan told CNN. "It's got to do with the protection of our tidal bay. Which is worse? Ecology changing or no hills at all?"
But for Flanagan, whose farm sits on low-lying lands behind the golf course, time, not politics is the main concern.
"We don't care who it is -- somebody has to slow down the erosion," he says.
Even before Trump's involvement, there was environmental opposition to developing the site into a golf course because of fears over the delicate habitat in the sand dunes.
Tony Lowes, a native New Yorker and the Director of the Friends of the Irish Environment has actively campaigned against the development of both the golf course and a wall along this section of coastline.
"They had a grandiose idea that they could build a wall and stop the sea. That was it," he tells CNN.
Lowes says a wall that would impede the circulation of sand would be a violation of the conservation objectives agreed in its initial development.
"Sand dunes are one of our best coastal defenses against frequencies and storms -- unless of course, you build a wall in front of them," Lowes said.
After a failed initial attempt to construct a barricade without a construction permit, Trump filed in May 2016 for permission to build a 2.5 kilometer-long wall (1.5 miles) running adjacent to a stretch of public beach. Local authorities filed a counter request citing environmental concerns and asking for clarification on 51 points.
Trump had six months to respond, but instead withdrew the application in early December 2016.
Later that month, when he was President-elect, Trump refiled a new application, which seeks permission to build two rock walls supported by sheet metal stretching along two opposite ends of the dunes, totaling 883 meters (0.5 miles.) A decision is due later this month.
Clare County Council told CNN they are not able to comment on the proposed development while the application process is ongoing.
An international group of coastal experts wrote in a letter to Clare County Council that the scaled down plan is "far from benign." Friends of the Irish Environment, along with The National Trust for Ireland and Save the Waves agree.
"It seems the sand dunes are collapsing around us, but that's part of a natural process," Lowes said.
"If you put a wall up you stop all that flexibility."
Not all agree.
As a child, Doonbeg's Rita McInerney spent Sundays playing in the dunes -- and as an adult she walks her dog along the soft sand beach.
"Nature has a powerful way of destroying itself anyways," McInerney, whose family has lived in Doonbeg for seven generations, tells CNN.
When the development was originally approved in 1999 she worked to ensure local rights would be prioritized. McInerney backs the walls construction because she believes it will help secure jobs.
There's little doubt that Trump's golf course boosts the local economy and not just as a direct employer.
Doonbeg's main street, home to a handful of pubs, three restaurants and shops and a cafe, rely on the business the resort brings in season. The course runs a daily shuttle for its guests who want to experience village life outside of the luxury resort.
"A lot of tourists are looking to meet the locals," McInerney says.
Although she is "very concerned" with many of Trump's policies in the US, McInerney says she can differentiate between the Trump name and the business.
"If you only did business with people of the same political ideology as you, you wouldn't do much business," she says.
"Fellow Irish people said we're working with the devil. We don't have options -- we have to survive."
It is not clear how the Trump Organization will proceed if planning permission is not approved, and some locals are concerned that the property might close if the wall isn't built.
In January, Trump said he resigned from his role as the course's director, leaving his sons Eric and Donald Jr. in charge of the course, although he refused to sell his ownership stake.
Trump International Golf Links Ireland and the Trump Organization did not respond to CNN's requests for comment.
Coincidentally, Vice President Mike Pence's ancestors hail from Doonbeg and his third cousin Hugh McNally, an avid golfer and member of Trump's club, still lives there.
The owner of Morrissey's, one of the town's local seafood restaurants and pubs, McNally attributes half of his business to the club.
McNally, like so many others reliant on the sustainability of the course, is concerned that if the wall isn't given the go-ahead, his business will flop.
"If you don't have a golf course I may as well go out with the tide like the dunes," he tells CNN.
Pakey O'Dea, whose two daughters work at the golf course told CNN: "If it closes, from here to Ennis it's going to be a ghost town."
"All the young people will be gone again. We're going to have nothing here if that goes," he says.
"It's very easy for people to judge from the outside...It's all just environmental rubbish -- they've [environmentalists] got too much power."
A group of international coastal experts have argued that a wall will not slow down the erosion nor stop the flooding.
Instead, they say it could divert the flooding seawater into the nearby river, which would continue to flood low lying surrounding areas -- like Flanagan's farm.
"Much international experience has proven that seawalls beget seawalls, and once these smaller walls are constructed, accelerated erosion will occur. The short of it is: seawalls destroy beaches and if that 'solution' is followed 'bigger and better' walls will be needed as the wave size increases and sea-level rises," the group of British and American experts said in a statement reviewed by CNN, which was submitted to the local authority.
Cow farmer Flanagan says he is frustrated that opposition voices haven't proposed an alternative and, regardless of the environmental reports, strongly believes Trump's wall would prevent the flooding.
"They're educated, but we're locals who see it happen," he says.
Not all those opposed to the wall are outsiders.
Alan Coyne -- who lives 20 minutes from the town -- has been surfing at Doonbeg's Doughmore Bay for 35 years. He says the water is the cleanest around and home to a unique tidal system.
A wall wouldn't just be a "blight" to the natural coastline -- it would change the surf altogether, Coyne says.
And he could be right.
Dave Flynn, who heads the West Coast Surf Club and works as a civil engineer, says he understands that the Trump Organization wants to protect their asset -- but he believes the proposed wall isn't a permanent solution.
"We know it's a gamble if its left to its own, but by putting up a wall, once you start you can't stop."
As most in the town of Doonbeg hope for the local council to approve the wall, those opposing say they are hoping the international attention might help change attitudes.
"If the project is completed as we think it will be, it marks the fossilization of one of the finest dune systems along our coast," Lowes says.
"We haven't got enough left to give them away to make sandlots for millionaires to play with."