A group aiming to revive the Coul Links golf course plans has secured a deal to manage the site if it can gain planning permission.
Communities for Coul (C4C) wants to put forward a locally-led application for a world class course at the Sutherland site, a year after the Scottish Government rejected the development proposal.
It has now reached an agreement with the owner of Coul Farm for the land to be leased to the community long-term, for a peppercorn rent, should permission be granted.
It would mean C4C overseeing the management of Coul Links under an Environmental Management Plan that would be agreed between the community and the golf course developer, with guidance from NatureScot.
The course would sit on 1% of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the original plan was opposed by environmental campaigners during a four-week public inquiry in 2019.
It was approved by a vote of 16-1 by Highland Council but later rejected by the government in February 2020.
Landowner Edward Abel Smith, who has plans for a £20 million eco hotel that would overlook the golf course, if it comes to fruition, said: “I have held, and continue to hold, extensive and productive discussions with Scottish Natural Heritage, and now NatureScot, over how best to look after the SSSI that sits on Coul Farm.
“To do this properly – which means incorporating the protection of rare species, bird habitats, removal of invasive species and regenerating neglected areas to name a few – requires funding, which is a challenge on a generally loss-making farm.
“Meaningful external finance is hard to find in these difficult times.
“I have considered various options for the land, but I see the possibility of handing the land to Communities for Coul as the best, as it will mean a fully-funded, far-reaching protection for the Coul Links section of the SSSI will be accompanied by unparalleled economic growth, which local business owners – myself included – will benefit from.”
A C4C spokesman said: “In the twelve months since the original planning application was refused by Scottish Ministers, none of the non-mandated environmental groups that opposed the development have come forward with any positive initiatives or firm proposals for Coul Links.
“We are therefore delighted that, if our aim of securing planning permission for a golf course is achieved, the Loch Fleet SSSI that sits on Coul Links would come under the stewardship of the local community, ensuring the site is properly cared for the first time since the SSSI was designated in the 1980s.”
The group said it considered leasing or buying the land to manage purely on an environmental basis, but decided a golf course would bring more overall benefit to local communities.
A NatureScot spokeswoman said: “We are involved in ongoing discussions with the landowner of Coul Links to improve the condition of the nationally important sand dune, as part of the Loch Fleet SSSI.”