By George Bennett
Palm Beach Post staff writer
The establishment was aghast when Donald Trump burst onto the scene.
Three decades before he shook up the 2016 Republican presidential race, Trump caused similar reverberations when he made a brash entrance into the old-money culture of Palm Beach.
Trump’s 1985 purchase of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post’s landmark Mar-a-Lago estate led to much pearl-clutching among the guardians of local decorum and years of clashes with the town and Palm Beach County over issues ranging from flagpole height to airport noise.
For those expecting Trump to fade out or flame out in the presidential race, his Palm Beach experience shows a remarkable persistence and durability.
His name remains atop the 33-story Trump Plaza condo towers in West Palm Beach even though he relinquished ownership of the buildings to lenders back in 1991.
“I have a lot of friends that live there and they’re so proud of the building and my name means a lot … especially now — I’m leading in every poll,” Trump told The Palm Beach Post this week.
'A new-money idea at an old-money location'
Trump has contended since the 1980s that noise and soot from Palm Beach International Airport flights damage Mar-a-Lago and his lawyers were in Palm Beach County Circuit Court this month pursuing his third lawsuit on the matter, this one seeking $100 million in damages.
Trump has a fondness for big numbers in local litigation. He has filed lawsuits of $25 million, $50 million and $100 million against the town of Palm Beach and a $75 million airport-related suit against the county. All were eventually dropped or settled.
Conflicts between Trump and local officialdom began soon after he purchased Mar-a-Lago and an adjoining oceanfront parcel for $7 million in 1985.
In his 1987 book The Art Of The Deal, Trump boasted that he snatched up the property for a bargain. The county property appraiser’s office agreed, valuing the property 64 percent higher than Trump’s purchase price and citing his book among its evidence for the higher appraisal. Trump went to court seeking a lower appraisal but the appraiser’s office prevailed after a prolonged battle.
Trump was also thwarted in the early 1990s when he proposed subdividing Mar-a-Lago’s 17.5 acres to build eight “Mansions at Mar-a-Lago” on the property. He filed a $50 million lawsuit against the town and came back with a proposal to turn the landmark into a private club.
The Mar-a-Lago Club has become a Palm Beach institution (“one of the most important things in Palm Beach,” Trump says), but it wasn’t initially seen that way by everyone. Given Trump’s background in casinos and celebrity glitz, the club idea at first caused trepidation among the island’s old guard.
“There’s a lot of resistance. To a lot of people it’s more a Boca idea than a Palm Beach idea,” the late socialite Tamara Newell explained in 1994 as plans for the club moved forward. “A lot of people like to think Palm Beach is a little more genteel and old money. This is a new-money idea at an old-money location.”
The club opened with a long list of restrictions (prompting Trump’s $100 million lawsuit against the town). Clashes ensued over noise and traffic and the 80-foot flagpole and 375-square-foot American flag Trump erected on the grounds (which led to Trump’s $25 million lawsuit).
Even the presence of Trump’s name on a coat of arms outside Mar-a-Lago caused a flap, with members of the town’s landmarks preservation commission accusing him of advertising in violation of town rules.
Some also suggested it was gauche to put one’s own name on a coat of arms.
“What am I gonna say, Jones?” Trump quipped in 2003.
Trump’s fondness for putting his name on things is legendary.
In 1986, Trump purchased the twin-tower Plaza condominium buildings in West Palm Beach for $40 million in a foreclosure sale and put “Trump Plaza” in 5-foot-high letters atop each of the buildings. After borrowing $60 million to complete the project, Trump relinquished the buildings to lenders in 1991.
But the Trump name remained. And when the letters atop the towers began disappearing in 1993 and 1994 — supposedly for maintenance, though some suspected a stealth campaign to de-Trumpify the buildings — condo unit owners voted 95-to-74 to put them back up. Trump then volunteered to pay for the restoration of the signs, telling the condo board in a letter, “It is my honor to help.”
As for current sentiment about the name, Carol Groh, a member of the condo board, declined to give her personal opinion but said: “I think there’s mixed emotions, especially now. In the past, there were a few people who wanted the name off but most people felt it added cachet.”
Palm Beach or Trump Beach?
Across the Intracoastal Waterway, Trump’s branding rubbed some Palm Beachers the wrong way when he was new in town.
“He will not be satisfied until he renames Palm Beach ‘Trump Beach,’” said former town Councilman Allen Wyett in 1996.
Wyett often voted against Trump’s proposals, but he and many others on the island have mellowed toward the mogul.
“Donald is not a changed man but I think he respects Palm Beach more than when he first arrived. He didn’t have a negative attitude, he had a pro-Donald attitude,” Wyett said recently. “Basically Donald has become a Palm Beacher. When he arrived, I think he looked at the town as a place to dominate. … Over the years, we had to get used to him and he had to get used to us.”
The Palm Beach Civic Association voiced many concerns about turning Mar-a-Lago into a club in the early 1990s and once called Trump “the notorious New York developer” in the association newsletter. Trump once threatened the group with a libel suit.
These days, Civic Association President Ned Barnes says, Trump’s club has turned out to be “part of Palm Beach” and hasn’t been the nuisance some feared 20 years ago.
“The Civic Association was very cautious and concerned about what he might do because he’s a big developer,” Barnes said. “But he’s become part of the community. It’s not a big issue for us anymore.”
from the air’
That type of rapprochement has not taken place between Trump and Palm Beach International Airport.
Mar-a-Lago is about 1,000 feet south of the main flight path in and out of the airport, and Trump since the 1980s has complained that PBIA flights damage the historic mansion.
In 1988, Trump became involved with a group called the Noise Pollution Action Fund that advocated restrictions on the noisiest types of aircraft at PBIA, a curfew on takeoffs and landings and, as a potential “long-term solution,” moving the airport to another location.
The group endorsed and held a fundraiser for a pair of county commission candidates — former Greenacres Mayor Jim Quigley and young attorney Robert Wexler — whom it considered sympathetic on airport issues.
Quigley and Wexler both lost.
“The problem was the Donald Trump thing,” Quigley said afterward. “Voters perceived me as being involved in something bad because Donald Trump is involved."
Wexler went on to become a state legislator and seven-term member of Congress. Writing about the 1988 commission race in his biography 20 years later, Wexler said, “my opponent seized the opportunity to go negative — although looking back, it was Donald Trump’s support that contributed more to my loss.”
After the political route failed, Trump tried litigation. He filed a $75 million lawsuit against the county, which oversees the airport, in 1995. That suit was settled in 1996 as part of an arrangement that included the county agreeing to lease 215 acres of vacant land near the airport for what would become the Trump International Golf Club with an acclaimed course designed by Jim Fazio.
“Trump International Golf Club has been a tremendous success, so you might want to mention that,” Trump told a reporter.
Trump sued the county again in 2010 over plans to expand the airport, but dropped the suit in 2011 when the expansion plans were shelved because of lower traffic projections.
He sued a third time in January. This time, the litigation claims that because of past disputes, county Airports Director Bruce Pelly “is seeking revenge by attacking Mar-a-Lago from the air” and influencing federal air traffic controllers to direct flights over Trump’s club.
The county, in court filings, has called the allegations that Pelly has sway over Federal Aviation Administration controllers “false and absurd” and “outlandish.” Attorney Eric Pilsk, hired to represent the county, wrote that the lawsuit “appears designed to create press buzz for Trump’s announced presidential campaign, cocktail party braggadocio, and negotiating leverage.”
Not so, says Trump.
“Everybody’s in my favor. You know, everybody loves what I’m doing, including the people in West Palm Beach,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Trump predicted he will prevail in the airport matter. He has encountered resistance and controversy since buying Mar-a-Lago in 1985, but has generally emerged with what he wanted. The onetime outsider to Palm Beach society was asked if he sees any parallel between his local history and the presidential race.
“I never thought of it that way. You could say that. I initially had a lot of resistance, presidential, and now I’m leading in every poll and people are taking it in stride,” Trump said. “I guess you could say there’s a parallel. The club has become so successful and so well accepted and everybody’s there. Everybody loves it.”