Those protesting against plans for a golf course to be built at Coul Links near Embo were left disappointed when the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) removed its opposition to the course.
Sepa said the removal of its opposition was conditional on “stringent” safeguards being put in place by Highland Council.
In its submission to the council, the body warned that if any conditions relating to waste water drainage and other issues were not applied then the council should consider their representation as an objection.
Sepa had prevously argued that the 18-hole championship course project would have “significant adverse environmental impacts” if developed in its current form.
To mitigate the impact, a number of greens, tees and fairways would have to be relocated.
Its report also highlighted the disruption to groundwater-dependent terrestrial ecosystems, such as dune slacks, which are wetlands protected under the EU Water Framework Directive.
However, following extensive talks with the developers and further materials being submitted, the agency withdrew its objection.
In a letter to Highland Council, Sepa said previous areas of concerns had been removed after what the developers described as “constructive dialogue”.
It said: “This new information enables us to remove our objection to the above planning applications.
“Wee request that conditions relating to waste water drainage and securing the Schedule of Mitigation are applied. If any of these conditions are not be applied, then please consider this representation as an objection.”
The agency’s move was welcomed by Todd Warnock, one of the American developers behind the Coul Links project.
He said: “We are very pleased with the thorough and professional dialogue we have had with Sepa over the past almost three years. We have taken the time to work constructively together to ensure the environmental integrity of the site and at the same time to advance one of the largest private investments in the history of Sutherland.
“We are now also looking forward to the response letter, which is expected from Scottish Natural Heritage.”
Tom Dargie of the Not Coul group that is opposed to the scheme said: “I am disappointed but I need to see more details of what Sepa has said. There’s often a sting in the tail in the conditions etc.”
Mr Dargie said he would be contacting Sepa to point out what he described as the developer’s inadequate and flawed environmental studies of the site.
He said the nitrate level of the golf course would be considerably above the threshold which could mean “vast amounts” of drinking water being used to dilute the concentration, placing strain on the local residential supply.
The group is concerned the course could upset what they say is one of the last remaining dune landscapes in Scotland.
John Kenny, Sepa chief officer, said: “With additional information submitted in January and February, Sepa’s planning and environment protection officers are satisfied that the requirements set out in its previous response have been addressed and it has been satisfactorily demonstrated that wetlands, watercourses and groundwater can be adequately protected.”
The scheme is backed by the Embo Trust, a company that seeks to develop and manage local assets in a way that benefits the area. The trust, on behalf of the Embo community, has expressed unequivocal support for the project and will receive an income from their investment.
However opposition to the proposal – part of which would be on a Site of Special Scientific Interest – is still formidable.
A petition against the course has more than 88,000 signatures, which is more than six times the population of Sutherland.
The company behind the golf course plan has accused a coalition of conservation groups of scaremongering over the project’s environmental impact, while the environmental bodies previously highlighted the alleged damage the scheme would cause to wildlife.
American businessman Mr Warnock, proprietor of the Links House Hotel and Carnegie Courthouse retail centre in Dornoch, and world renowned golf course developer Mike Keiser, are spearheading the proposals for the 18-hole course.
The Coul Links team said the golf course plans were supported by “an overwhelming proportion of the local population,” and will provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, creating an estimated 250 jobs and more than £60 million gross value added during its first decade of operation.
But an alliance of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Buglife Scotland, Butterfly Conservation Scotland, the Marine Conservation Society, Plantlife and RSPB Scotland are campaigning to stop the proposals. The National Trust for Scotland has objected.
Among the developers’ proposals to protect wildlife is bringing an end to shooting of wintering birds on the area of land involved.
The original layout of the course was also revised in response to conversation groups’ concerns.
Highland Council is now expected to discuss the application in June.
The developers filed a planning application on September 22, 2017 after a two-year process of economic and environmental assessment. Six public consultation events were held locally and the overwhelming majority of those who attended were firmly behind the project.
The developers said that since 1988, invasive species have grown by 333 per cent at the site, covering more than five hectares. As a commitment to environmental integrity, the developers have agreed, in close conjunction with Scottish Natural Heritage, to implement a fully funded site management plan.
Specifically, the developers will commit funds annually to maintain and enhance the site thus preserving it in perpetuity at no cost to the taxpayer. Sepa’s letter is available on the Highland Council’s website.