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‘Southlands national park’ could be open by spring

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Warwick's Southlands estate is to be turned into a national park, and could open to the public as early as next spring.

Former Government Conservation Officer David Wingate has proposed turning the former private gardens into a new Botanical Gardens.

Suggestions will be taken from the community for developing the 37-acre wooded site.

To cover restoration costs, a fundraiser will be held on October 18, at the Bermuda National Trust headquarters in Waterville, Paget — the first of several events to pay for its renewal.

Southlands, which is roughly the size of the Botanical Gardens, sparked a furore in 2007 when Government obtained a special development order to build a resort there.

Ultimately, developers Craig Christensen, Brian Duperreault and Nelson Hunt agreed to a land swap deal with Government and took 80 acres at Morgan's Point, Southampton.

Southlands' conversion to a park will go before MPs in the House of Assembly in “a couple of months”, Junior Environment Minister Alexis Swan yesterday announced, flanked by Deputy Premier Michael Dunkley and members of the group Friends of Southlands.

Noting that Bermuda is one of the world's most densely-populated countries, Senator Swan said parks provided quiet sanctuaries for reflection and time with family.

She said that residents had expressed “concern and frustration at the state and future of Southlands” while she canvassed the constituency, Warwick South East, for the One Bermuda Alliance in the last election.

Illegally dumped rubble had marred the overgrown estate, which now has a gate protecting its entrance.

“This is just the first step in a multi-stage project to restore this beautiful jewel in Bermuda's landscape,” said Sen Swan of next month's international wine and cheese tasting, which will charge $75 per person for general admission and $125 for patron tickets.

Her mother, Kuni Frith-Black, helped found the organisation Friends of Southlands in January, and the group hopes to obtain charitable status, to become a full-time backer for the property.

Ms Frith-Black said she'd spent her childhood playing in the grounds of the sprawling estate, which runs from the beachfront into the wooded hillsides and quarries.

Government also reiterated its commitment to turn Southlands into a park in the latest Throne Speech.

Ms Frith-Black said there would also be a drive for volunteers to come to Southlands on Monday, October 21 through Wednesday, October 23, to assist the Department of Parks in cleaning it up.

Parks, in association with the Department of Conservation Services, has been developing a management plan for Southlands, with the help of environmentalists.

An open house will be held at the property on Saturday, October 26, with tours conducted by former Government Conservation Officer David Wingate.

Dr Wingate told The Royal Gazette he felt the site would make a fine new home for the Botanical Gardens.

“Really, the Botanical Gardens are that in name only, and it barely functions as such,” he said. “It serves as a public place for more intensive uses like dog training classes, the annual Exhibition, movie showings and so on.

“I raised this idea to the Parks Commission. Given that Southlands was a private botanical garden, it still retains a lot of plant diversity from that period.”

Added Dr Wingate: “We need to think outside the box with Southlands. It could function as a better Botanical Gardens, and that might be a way of justifying expenses.”

Southlands contains every type of habitat found in Bermuda, with the sole exception of mangrove forest. Its quarry gardens have ponds and other water features, with beachfront and cliffs at the South Shore.

Environmentalist Stuart Hayward, head of the Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Task Force (BEST) thanked Friends of Southlands for backing the project.

“BEST has a special attachment to Southlands,” Mr Hayward said. “It was here that BEST cut its teeth in our role as environmental activists and protectors of Bermuda's dwindling open spaces.”

Companies and groups seeking to volunteer or donate should contact the BEST offices, he added.

Southlands proved controversial for developers and former Premier Ewart Brown when the proposal to develop the site provoked a storm of protest from BEST and others.

Dr Wingate recalled the peaceful roadside demonstrations by dozens of environmentalists holding placards as a first for the Island.

Environmentalists protested again in 2010 when developers accused Government of dragging its feet on the Morgan's Point land swap deal.

The group Greenrock, which got its start in opposing the siting of the new hospital in the Botanical Gardens, said it was “very happy at the news that Southlands is finally to be turned into a national park.

“Our green spaces are the lungs of our island, and it would have been a terrible waste to develop this piece of land.”

There is no exact figure yet for the first round of cleanup and restoration at the site, but Ms Frith-Black said equipment and salaries for four or five full-time maintenance workers could run to about $350,000 a year.

Kuni Frith-Black, from Friends of Southlands, talks at a press conference held today to announce a new fundraising campaign to turn the Warwick property into a national park. Photo David Skinner

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Published September 24, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated September 24, 2013 at 1:01 am)

‘Southlands national park’ could be open by spring

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