When That Feisty Neighbor Becomes the President
PALM BEACH, Fla. — For local officials here, it was one thing to spar with Donald J. Trump, the developer, over the height of his ficus hedges, the crowds at his Elton John concerts and the roar of jet engines over his private club, Mar-a-Lago.
Mr. Trump would often threaten or cajole. The government would often push back, impose fines or endure lawsuits.
But dealing with Donald J. Trump, the president, is another matter entirely.
Since he was elected, officials in Palm Beach County have quickly granted President Trump’s club permission to build a concrete helipad, allowed the club to host a charity event for the Navy SEAL Foundation featuring a staged shootout between some commandos and pretend terrorists, and agreed to assume the costs, for now at least, of closing roads and providing additional security. Behind every decision was a balancing act between a desire to best serve constituents and a political instinct not to anger the nation’s chief executive.
“Someone asked me, ‘Do you feel like you’re going to get into a sort of combative situation with the president of the United States?’ Did it cross my mind? Yes,” said Dave Kerner, a Democrat on the Board of County Commissioners, a panel that has often been at odds with Mr. Trump in the last 20 years.
“Republican colleagues of mine and people in the community I have good relationships with caution me,” he added. “Just: ‘Buyer, beware. If you push too hard, there might be some consequences.’”
At the start of his presidency, Mr. Trump handed the management of the Trump Organization, his company, over to his two eldest sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, and other executives. Mr. Trump and the company have had issues with the federal government over the years, most famously over income tax audits. But with 12 golf resorts and more than 20 other properties bearing the Trump name across the country, the business has plenty of dealings — and disputes — with local governments.
Currently, the Trump Organization has property tax challenges pending from Ossining, N.Y., to Los Angeles County. Its buildings and businesses are subject to routine oversight and inspections, and some of the kitchens were recently cited for health code violations. The Trumps are also planning a major hotel expansion, negotiating licensing deals under its new brand, Scion, in dozens of places from Dallas to Valley Forge. All the hotels would require approvals from local officials.
At least one Trump consultant, Edward Russo, said he had noticed a positive change in the reception he had gotten from local leaders since Mr. Trump took office. “It is surreal,” said Mr. Russo, an environmental consultant who recently won permission for a minor addition on a cottage at the Trumps’ golf club in Bedminster, N.J., where Mr. Trump is spending this weekend.
In years past, Mr. Trump peppered officials in Bedminster with requests to use the club grounds for his final resting place — first seeking a combined mausoleum-wedding chapel with obelisks and then a 1.5-acre graveyard, and finally agreeing on a 10-plot family cemetery. He squabbled with them over the lettering on his golf course’s sign and persuaded them to consider part of the property a farm so his tax bill would be lower.
“Everybody is still trying to get used to it,” Mr. Russo said. “This is the president of the United States. Who would have thought?”
‘Go Ahead and Fight’
In Florida, local and state leaders did not shy away from wrangling with Mr. Trump after he bought Mar-a-Lago in 1985. The disputes often ended in compromise.
For years, Mr. Trump was a nearly constant source of conflict. He sought exemptions from local ordinances, bent and broke regulations, and complained about everything from the frequency of drawbridge openings — “far too often,” he wrote in a 2001 letter to transportation officials — to the “deplorable” condition of a neighbor’s loading dock.
“Very often what I want to do involves a lot of other organizations and a lot of bureaucracy,” Mr. Trump wrote in his 2008 book, “Never Give Up.” “They say you can’t fight city hall, but I have no problems going against conventional wisdom. Think for yourself and go ahead and fight.”
In the early 1990s, he sued the Town of Palm Beach, the seaside enclave known for its fussy rules and implacable officials, and threatened to subdivide Mar-a-Lago before the town allowed him to convert the estate into a private club. Even then, town leaders conditioned their approval on Mr. Trump’s signing a 17-page “use agreement,” which his lawyer later would describe as “like ankle bracelets on an innocent prisoner.”
Donald J. Trump vs. Palm Beach County
A sample of Mr. Trump’s correspondence with local government in Palm Beach County.
For the next decade, Mr. Trump and the town argued over such issues as the best way to fireproof Mar-a-Lago’s 16th-century Portuguese tapestries, unauthorized photo shoots and Mr. Trump’s plans to build a marina. (That would have required dredging nearby Lake Worth, which is tightly regulated by local, state and federal officials.)
In 2000, town leaders threatened penalties against Mr. Trump’s club over a brunch invitation — they said it suggested the club was being used for an event by an outside business. Then, in 2006, officials cited Mr. Trump for a string of other violations at Mar-a-Lago, including the height of his ficus hedges (too low) and attendance at an Elton John concert (too high).
Aggrieved, Mr. Trump protested the concert complaint. “I am deeply disappointed that the town would want to penalize my efforts to host one of the world’s foremost entertainers for a very worthwhile charity and an evening which brought great acclaim to Palm Beach,” he wrote in a letter. “It is unfortunate that the town continues to take such a harsh tone when it comes to the Mar-a-Lago Club and Donald Trump.”
Four months after he sent the letter, he went on the offensive using an unconventional weapon: an 80-foot flagpole in front of the club. His lawyers argued that only a pole of that size could adequately convey Mr. Trump’s patriotism. Officials fined him, and he sued, accusing them of violating his right to free speech, before reaching a settlement.
In another lawsuit, filed against the City of Doral, Fla., shortly before Mr. Trump announced his candidacy, his lawyers argued that a ban on using lawn mowers before 7:30 a.m. infringed on his right to due process. Mr. Trump dropped the suit days later and opted to negotiate with the city.
Melissa Nathan, a spokeswoman for the Trump Organization, declined to answer questions or comment for this article.
CreditAlyssa Schukar/The Palm Beach Post, via Associated Press
Palm Beach’s former building director Robert L. Moore, in an interview last May, described Mr. Trump as “used to pretty much getting what he wanted, when he wanted it.”
“Sometimes they were a little outlandish,“ Mr. Moore said of Mr. Trump’s requests, “but he always had a reasoning to his outlandishness. If he didn’t get everything he wanted the first time around, he might get enough to make it worth his while.”
‘The Right Tone’
When Mr. Trump used a Boeing 727 in the 1990s, it was the loudest plane at the Palm Beach County airport, according to former airport officials. It was once impounded because he failed to pay a noise violation fee. But he would fly into a rage at the sound of other planes passing over Mar-a-Lago, and he often ordered club staff members to call the airport and complain, even late at night, former employees said.
From January to March 2001, for example, a county airport hotline logged 88 noise complaints from Mar-a-Lago, records show.
Mr. Trump has sued Palm Beach County three times since 1995, arguing that the flyovers were damaging his club. Along the way, he developed a grudge against the county airport director, Bruce V. Pelly.
“He’s a moron,” Mr. Trump told The Palm Beach Post in 2007, using an epithet he has also used for the likes of the former New York mayor Ed Koch, the former New York congressman Anthony Weiner and Martha Stewart. “The worst airport director in the country,” Mr. Trump said.
After Mr. Trump’s election, his lawyers dropped his most recent lawsuit against the airport. The noise issue had become moot: His new status as president meant the skies over Mar-a-Lago would become a no-fly zone whenever he visited.
The next week, the commission that had voted repeatedly to fight Mr. Trump in court decided to send him a congratulatory letter.
“We have been busy working with federal officials to ensure that your visits home to Palm Beach County will continue to be enjoyable,” the letter read, “and provide a place away from the White House to conduct the important business of the country.”
The commissioners all agreed it was important to set the “right tone.”
In January, Mr. Trump’s lawyers made what previously would have been an unheard-of request: They asked for permission from Palm Beach officials to build a 50-foot concrete helipad outside Mar-a-Lago, to accommodate Marine One, the helicopter that carries the president.
Neighbors reacted with horror. In a letter to the town, one described helicopters as “massive beasts, generating enormous wind speeds and noise,” and warned that approving the helipad would leave the town “powerless to do anything as our beautiful, peaceful island is ripped apart by the helicopters’ noise.”
But rather than deny the request or bog it down in months of deliberations, the noise-averse town leaders gave the new president swift approval for the plan. They allowed for takeoffs and landings “for business related to the presidency only.”
“I actually would be thrilled to sit on my back lawn and watch Marine One go by and land at Mar-a-Lago,” said Page Lee Hufty, a member of the town’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. “I’m proud.”
Still, Mr. Trump’s frequent visits to South Florida have prompted a new set of concerns: the costs associated with them.
Mr. Trump traveled to Mar-a-Lago seven times in his first three months in office. The trips gave the county a welcome turn in the international spotlight and flooded hotels and restaurants with travelers, officials said.
But the visits also were a drain on local governments’ budgets. Palm Beach County commissioners estimate they have had to pay sheriff’s deputies $60,000 a day in overtime to close roads and supplement Secret Service details. They say the cost to local taxpayers has already amounted to more than $4 million.
Yet the commissioners were not sure what to do about it. They figured their best bet was to wait and see whether the federal government reimbursed them, as Mr. Trump promised the county sheriff it would.
On Thursday, Congress passed a spending bill that sets aside $41 million to pay back local law enforcement agencies for security costs related to the president’s travel to his residences, a figure that will barely cover expenses incurred by New York City and Palm Beach County. Palm Beach County officials are expecting a reprieve later this month from the added security burden when Mar-a-Lago closes for the season.
Earlier, Mr. Kerner, the Palm Beach County commissioner, had suggested dealing with the burden on the budget by targeting Mar-a-Lago with a special assessment tied to the use of municipal services.
“People pitch it as: ‘You’re trying to tax the president.’ Or: ‘You’re a Democrat. You’re just trying to go after him because of that.’ But I hope you see that’s not the case,” Mr. Kerner said. “The only way to deal with it is to raise taxes or not hire the 33 deputies we need in the next fiscal year.”
The costs have hit other nearby governments, like the one in West Palm Beach, which is sandwiched between Mar-a-Lago and a Trump golf course. It has spent tens of thousands of dollars on hardening its information technology systems after a hacking attack that officials believe is tied to Mr. Trump’s election. And the city said it had paid about $60,000 for the police to be on hand during demonstrations.
“When he was elected, I think it hit me the first time he visited. We were having to plan for a pretty significant protest march,” Mayor Jeri Muoio, a Democrat, said. “And I realized: This is something we were going to have to live with the next four years.”