Stern agency meets unflappable mogul

Times Staff Writer

Turning onto scenic Palos Verdes Drive South, one encounters breathtaking grandeur: the vast ocean, an infinite horizon. And then there is Donald Trump’s 70-foot flagpole flying a nearly 400-square-foot flag.

The flagpole that Trump illegally erected at his Rancho Palos Verdes golf club over a year ago is at the center of a simmering controversy between the billionaire and the California Coastal Commission. The conflict is the latest in a series for Trump, who has long had a do-it-without-permission approach to his real estate holdings.

After getting retroactive approval for the flagpole from the Rancho Palos Verdes City Council, Trump is refusing to pay a $10,000 filing fee for the commission’s evaluation of the flagpole and its effect on the coast.


“The flag’s still flying while we sit here in limbo,” said Gabriel Buhr, a coastal programs analyst for the commission’s South Coast district office. “It’s frustrating that the application hasn’t been completed, so we can’t move forward.”

But Trump maintains that no one should need a permit to fly a U.S. flag, no matter the size.

“Since when do you have to pay to put up the American flag?” said Trump, who argued that the flagpole was commensurate with the 300-acre site.

He made a similar argument last year for keeping a row of ficus trees planted along his golf course without authorization to hide homes he deemed unsightly, angering residents who said their views were blocked.

“Do we need permission to plant bushes?” Trump said.

He eventually lost that battle when the council ordered the trees, some as tall as 12 feet, removed.

Meanwhile, a flag the size of a studio apartment continues to fly on the oceanfront, towering 54 feet over the city’s 16-foot limit on “accessory structures.” On a recent windy afternoon, the 25-by-15-foot flag was flapping at its full length, emitting a propeller-like sound that echoed off clubhouse walls.

“It’s a beautiful view coming around the corner, and then you see this big thing,” said Klaas Visser, who comes to the public beach near the flag once a week to walk his two dogs.

“It’s a little obnoxious. . . . It definitely doesn’t blend in with the rest of the coast,” says Visser, 36, a commercial pilot who lives in Redondo Beach.

Trump declared victory in October 2006 when the Rancho Palos Verdes City Council voted 3 to 2 to let the flagpole stand under a “conditional use permit.”

“It’s a great day for the American flag and what it represents,” he wrote in a post on his blog.

The city permit, however, required that Trump also get approval from the Coastal Commission. It has ultimate jurisdiction because the flagpole affects the public’s view from designated scenic routes and parks, Buhr said. The city is responsible for protecting residents’ views.

Trump’s staff submitted an application in August without a filing fee. Officials also said the application was missing information that the commission needs to evaluate the full effect of the installment.

Buhr said that although the commission could have doubled the fee to $20,000, they had waived the after-fact fee for building without approval.

For Trump, erecting massive flagpoles without zoning approval is modus operandi.

The real estate mogul of “You’re fired” fame said he put up poles of similar dimension at his golf clubs across the country, including New York, New Jersey and Florida, all without permits.

But that ruffled feathers in Palm Beach, Fla., where zoning officials asked Trump to remove the flag. The flag was 15 times larger than what code allows, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Trump waged a $25-million lawsuit against the town when Palm Beach officials started fining him $1,250 per day. That dispute was settled in April 2007 when Trump agreed to a pole 10 feet shorter and away from the ocean, and to donate $100,000 to charities, according to the Palm Beach Post.

In Rancho Palos Verdes, some residents said the problem was Trump and his way of doing things rather than the flagpole itself. Many longtime peninsula residents refuse to eat at the restaurant in Trump’s golf club or go to events there, residents said.

“He represents something that Palos Verdes is not about,” said Sheryl Heffernan, 48. The seven-year resident of Rancho Palos Verdes said she personally doesn’t find the flag an eyesore, but that’s not really the issue. “I think it was about Donald trying to skirt issues; do and then ask forgiveness.”

But at least one resident is an avid fan. Retired high school principal Tim Scully, 60, said he had a photo of the flag made into a book of postal stamps and sent it to Trump’s New York office.

“I think his flag is perfect,” Scully said. “It’s a bold statement. . . . It reminds people from other countries that America is still flying its flag.”

Trump said he had no intention of paying the fee.

“If the Coastal Commission wants to rip down the American flag, we’ll see them at the Supreme Court,” he said.