PALM BEACH, Fla. — It is high season in South Florida: blue skies, low humidity, warm temperatures and increasingly regular visits from the president of the United States.
With those visits, the busiest time of year for longtime residents of Palm Beach has taken on a new unpleasantness. Airplane noise, traffic and a rash of angry confrontations between pro and anti-Trump demonstratorsare beginning to seem like the new normal.
“He’s baaaack!” warned one resident on a neighborhood blog. “Get out your earplugs it is going to be another noisy weekend!”
President Trump’s trips here — which have added up to more than half of the weekends since his inauguration — are also forcing a brewing budgetary crisis for Palm Beach County, which faces the prospect of millions of dollars in unexpected costs associated with aiding in securing the president’s luxury estate.
“I’m not sure that anyone understood that when the president referred to Mar-a-Lago as the ‘Southern White House’ he really intended to visit almost every week,” said Rep. Theodore E. Deutch (D-Fla.), who represents Palm Beach and is pushing for federal appropriators to address the growing costs. “There are a lot of people who come to Palm Beach County over the entire winter to enjoy the weather and enjoy the golfing.”
“When the president chooses to do the same thing, it raises a whole host of other issues,” he added.
Palm Beach County officials are warning about the ballooning costs associated with paying time and a half to sheriff’s department deputies to secure the president’s exclusive members-only club — a pricetage that is already more than $1.5 million — and county commissioners are pleading with federal officials to step in and relieve the financial burden.
“I would never consider a proposal that says we’re not going to use our county resources when the president’s here. It’s our patriotic duty,” said County Commissioner David Kerner. “Its just unfair that burden should be borne alone.”
Kerner has proposed an inventive solution: levying a “special benefit” fee on Mar-a-Lago to recoup some of the cost. The alternative, according to Kerner, is raising taxes for everyone or making cuts to the budget.
Doing that could imperil proposals to allocate more county money to combat opioid abuse and to hire more sheriff deputies next year.
“Those are real issues: keeping cops off the street and diminishing our opioid epidemic response,” Kerner added.
Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, who has known Trump for the 25 years, met privately with the president in February at Mar-a-Lago.
“I told him we were incurring these expenses, and he said, ‘I’m going to take care of law enforcement,’” Bradshaw said. “We were having a conversation, and he said, ‘I’m a big supporter of law enforcement, you guys are doing a good job down here with the Secret Service, and I don’t expect that you guys are doing it for free.’ So he gets it, he knows what’s happening.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on whether the president feels the county should be reimbursed for the cost of assisting in his security.
Once just another celebrity living along what locals call “millionaires row,” Trump is now the leader of the free world and along with straining the county’s budget, his presence has upended some of the carefree peace of his winter enclave.
A local airport faces “devastation” as a result of flight restrictions. Residents in neighborhoods nearby complain about the constant jet rumbling of commercial flight paths redirected over their homes.
“They’ll start with the planes going over at 5:30 a.m.,” said Carol Canright, a West Palm Beach resident. “You have to turn up the volume to hear over it.”
Local real estate agent Linda Cullen said flights are taking off over her house every three minutes when Trump is in town.
“You would think that he would be open to some way of softening the impact,” she said.
Meanwhile, a 15-minute drive from Mar-a-Lago, the president’s presence has all but shut down a small, local airport. On a South Florida weekend like this past one, with clear skies, sunshine, and a slight breeze, activity around the Lantana Airport should be at its busiest.
“It’s a perfect day,” said Altaf Hussain, owner of Pilot Training Center, a flight school based at the airport in Palm Beach County. “This place should be buzzing.”
It’s one of the nation’s busiest general aviation airports for flight training, and winter weekends are the prime time for students to practice their skills in the air. These weekends are also big with tourists renting flights to cruise above the nearby beaches, and for banner planes to be taking off with advertisements unfurling from their tails. More than two dozen businesses employing 400 people operate out of the airport.
Instead of overseeing flights, Hussain sat outside his hangar on Saturday, his five Cessna 172 fixed wing planes parked nearby, grounded for the weekend by a Temporary Flight Restriction order from the Secret Service — the highest level of restrictions aimed at pilots, used whenever the president is in town.
For the first time Saturday, business owners at Lantana like Hussain were told by the Secret Service that not only were they prohibited from flying, they couldn’t even start their engines for regular maintenance.
So Hussain spent his morning putting together a barbecue grill.
“The weekend flights are 33 percent of my business,” he said. “I’m surviving, but I don’t know how much longer. I lose $8,500 a weekend when we’re shut down. For a small guy like me, that’s a lot of money.”
Jonathan Miller, who operates the airport, told the Associated Press last month that a helicopter company has decided to move elsewhere costing Lantana more than $440,000 in annual rent and fuel sales.
“It’s a ghost town,” Ryan Dougherty said as he worked on a plane at a Lantana hangar. Dougherty works at Florida Aero Paint, painting helicopters and other aircraft. “We can’t even get UPS deliveries. Every time this happens, it sets us back four days. Customers don’t want to wait that long.”
Local and federal officials met recently for more than two hours with the Secret Service, who explained that the proximity to Mar-a-Lago meant that making special accommodations for the Lantana airport were impossible.
The situation could be a one two financial punch for the county as well, which owns the airport but leases it to tenant businesses. Since the start of the year, the county’s profits from operating Lantana have grown smaller and smaller according to Commissioner Kerner. And officials may be forced to aid the small businesses hit hardest from the flight restrictions.
“It’s just devastation,” said Kerner. “I’m going to have to fight for those businesses in the county budget and maybe rent rebates or some sort of subsidy that way.”
Recently, residents have noticed a new military-grade radar parked in an open lot on the airport’s grounds, one more sign of the permanence of their new normal.
“There’s federal infrastructure coming in,” Kerner commented.
If there is a silver lining, it is that Trump’s visit could boost an already thriving tourism business in Palm Beach.
Visits to Palm Beach County were up to record levels before Trump took office — 7.35 million visitors for 2016, above the 6.9 the year before, according to Ashley Svarney, Director of Public Relations and Communications for Discover the Palm Beaches, the local tourism promotion agency.
“So far this year, the numbers are pretty good, but it’s too early to tell,” she said.
But having the media covering Trump at his beachside estate during the height of the tourist season has its benefits, she said.
“When people see the photos and video of the crystal clear blue skies, the turquoise waters, the beautiful homes, it may make them think more about visiting,” Svarney said.
Some of the visitors to the area around Mar-a-Lago are arriving less to enjoy the beautiful scenery than to take part in the intense political debate ushered in by Trump’s election.
West Palm Beach resident Christy Cary planted herself on the thin stretch of beach lining the narrow two-lane road a few hundred feed from Mar-a-Lago on a recent Saturday morning. She took a last puff of her cigarette and stared out over the water as a heavily armed Coast Guard boat floated by.
“I just think it’s such a beautiful lovely place, I come down here and spread some support,” said Cary, who that day donned her “I’m an adorable deplorable. Trump 2016” T-shirt.
Cary and several friends — all Trump supporters — have made a habit of coming down to the beach to counter anti-Trump protesters who also tend to gather here when the president is in town.
“We’re all down here being peaceful all day until they come, and then it starts,” Cary said of the protesters. Her friend Jennifer, a vocal Trump supporter, is the one who engages, Cary said.
“She’ll stay down here until everyone’s gone, type of girl,” Cary said. “That’s why we always drive separate.”
Cary has less patience with the protesters.
“I don’t like being cussed at,” she added.
On Sunday afternoon, her efforts paid off. As Trump’s motorcade passed Cary and her friends waving and cheering, the president waved back and later summoned them to meet him at Mar-a-Lago.
“I’m like, what am I supposed to say to the president?” Cary said, dazed after the meeting. “It still doesn’t even really feel real.”