Jack Nicklaus seeks land swap for development in Jupiter Bear’s Club

Golf legend Jack Nicklaus’ exclusive Bear’s Club wants to develop about 15 acres of property it owns that is restricted by a hands-off conservation easement protecting the habitat.

So, the club is offering a trade.

It is asking the Palm Beach County Commission to unlock the land. In exchange, Bear’s Club will give a one-time payment of $1 million to the Natural Areas Fund, which pays for maintaining the county’s natural areas, and about 20 acres of other property at Bear’s Club — totaling 44 parcels, each averaging less than half an acre — to be protected.

Commissioners are expected to vote on the deal Tuesday. Located in Jupiter, the community includes about 115 homes, a golf course and clubhouse. Membership is by invitation only, according to the club’s website.

County staff opposes the trade, saying the new land being offered would be fragmented and the overall ecological value of the complete habitat would be degraded. The staff’s report also expresses concern about the message that would be sent by exchanging a conservation easement for money.

But the commissioners have had another view presented to them — by former County Commissioner Karen Marcus, who represented northern Palm Beach County when she was in office. Bear’s Club employed Marcus as a lobbyist from May 2017 to this past April, according to the county’s lobbyist registry.

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She’s won over at least one county commissioner: Her replacement in District 1, Hal Valeche.

“I’m supporting it,” Valeche told The Palm Beach Post. “This was brought to my attention by former Commissioner Marcus, and I would not be supporting this unless she was because she is really very involved with the environment and has a lot of credibility in that area, so I really was looking to her guidance on this.”

The public doesn’t have access to the preserve, a factor Valeche considered.

“So it’s not like if you exchange one piece of preserve land for another one that you’re taking anything away from the public,” he said.

Marcus, who was a county commissioner from 1984 to 2012, is the president of Sustainable Palm Beach County.

She did not return a request for comment for this story.

Commissioners have received emails from the Sierra Club’s Loxahatchee Group and Audubon Everglades organization opposing the swap.

The conservation easement was placed on the property in 1993 in a settlement unrelated to Nicklaus or Bear’s Club. That agreement 25 years ago between the county and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation — which owned the land at the time — said the property would be retained and maintained “forever.”

Staff said that’s another reason to deny the swap: the “forever” part.

The protected land has 165 species of plants and 22 species of animals that have been documented on the site, according to an assessment the county’s Environmental Resources Management department did in July. The list includes gopher tortoises, considered by the state a threatened species, and giant and common wild pine, both considered endangered.

“Overall, the site has a diversity of habitats and is in good condition with very few exotic plant species present,” the ERM assessment says. “The scrub and scrubby flatwoods are providing valuable habitat for endemic and rare plant and animal species.”

Drew Martin, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club, said protecting the county’s remaining habitat overrides the $1 million “onetime gift.” He also said if the commission does approve the switch, officials would send a message that they doesn’t take seriously the loss of environment through illegal actions.

The 15 acres is at the southwest corner of Frederick Small and Palmwood roads just north of Donald Ross Road. It’s in the 400-acre Bear’s Club single-family home community. Jack and Barbara Nicklaus founded the club in 1999.

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