‘What’s the alternative? No jobs?’
Environment Minister Walter Roban kicked off the Tucker's Point Special Development Order (SDO) debate last night by expressing his pride in the unprecedented step to publically scrutinize the bill.
Introducing the SDO, the Government MP said: “I come here before you with a sense of pride, a sense of pride because of the steps that we have taken today which are unprecedented in this House. Never before has a Government tabled for public scrutiny a SDO.”
Mr Roban said: “Over the years, these orders, although a legitimate means of obtaining development approval, have been regarded by just a few in the community as a so-called backdoor method of circumvention of the normal planning process. That's not so.
“It must be understood by this House that orders of this House have been approved after the most careful consideration in order to achieve national priorities. One must not presume they are made in any questionable way. They are legitimate tools under the law, I make that clear. But it's a perception that an SDO is an aberration of this process arose because they were granted without much consultation of Parliament.”
He said with the planning amendment made in advance of the Tucker's Point debate, this will not be the case in future.
Mr Roban said he was “thrilled with the passion of the debate that has been occasioned by the taking of this step” (to debate the Tucker's Point development in Parliament.)
The public gallery contained environmentalists including Stuart Hayward, who has spoken out on behalf of the Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce (BEST.) Other voices of concern have come from the National Trust and CURE.
In an apparent reference to these protests, Mr Roban said: “We have heard the usual voices espousing the usual objections against the SDO. It's clear some of those voices did not even read the order, I know this because some of those persons admitted to myself and the Ministry just that. But we understand because they are not used to having these orders available to them to have an opportunity to know what's going on so we would understand the passion of their response and why they didn't realise they could read it or have access to it because it's not happened before.”
He said he had reached out to the public via talk shows to discuss the issues directly with those who support it and those who do not.
“Some were concerned we would attempt to rush it through or debate it quickly so no-one would know what was going on. This is not the manner in which this Government operates.”
He said Government had placed the SDO in the public domain almost a month ago to allow the public to digest it and comment on it.
Mr Roban said: “Some unfortunate questions have arisen. Questions over the integrity of persons like myself surrounding this order. That was unfortunate but at the same time I appreciate some of the emotions around this issue. I didn't think it was necessary but I understand the emotions.
“Perhaps now that debate that surrounds SDOs can be about the merits of SDOs and no longer about the perceived deception that people believe has been taking place in the full sunshine of public scrutiny. Perhaps that can now happen with the process we have taken with this and those going forward that follow this debate.”
Mr Roban said the SDO involved conflicting interests. He said the area is very important environmentally in terms of its trees, including yellowwood trees, and endemic species.
However, he said that on the other hand, from a tourism perspective, it's equally important that a five star resort that is acclaimed internationally and is funded by on-Island capital is not seen to fail.
During the debate on the SDO,
Shadow Environment Minister Cole Simons made the point it would be helping a large resort with its financial obligations when smaller hoteliers and guest house owners are still suffering.
“Let's share the love with our Bermudian hoteliers and our Bermudian small guest houses,” he urged. “They're the ones that will need less capital [investment] going forwards.”
Mr Simons said some of these have done “yeomans's service” for decades.
“Let's give some attention to Bermudian entrepreneurs,” he urged.
He also cited concerns over the environmental impact of the proposed development at Tucker's Point.
“Let's not underestimate the value of our caves and the value of the flora and fauna. Our tourists come here to see that,” he noted.
Tourism Minister Patrice Minors backed the SDO. She said it is important to support Tucker's Point, which has won numerous awards. She noted that its owners, Rosewood, need it in order to meet their financial obligations.
Of Mr Simons' concern that the “love” should be shared with smaller properties too, she said: “I do appreciate there are smaller properties in need, but it's a different approach we have to take with the smaller properties. They do not have to apply for an SDO.”
Ms Minors said the small properties have access to the same concessions to encourage their business as the larger hotels, “and we encourage them to make use of them”.
She added: “I would hope that the individual on the street who would read the paper tomorrow and see we have approved this legislation will see the benefit of it. It's not showing particular favouritism to Tucker's Point but looking at the whole tourism industry.”
John Barritt of the United Bermuda Party said: “I can certainly sympathise with the Government Ministers who have spoken. They must feel they are between a rock and a hard place.”
He also noted concern over the heritage of the land.
The Bermuda Environmental and Sustainability Taskforce [BEST] and Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda [CURB] raised concerns over the SDO based on the fact that the proposed development includes lands from which mostly black families were forcibly removed in the 1920s to enable the promotion of tourism.
Stuart Hayward, of BEST, has commented: “It is a betrayal to now allow these lands to be sold off as real estate.”
And CURB president Lynne Winfield has said the SDO is seen as a desecration of the land by many in Bermuda's East End.
She described it as “a slap in the face” to the descendents of the mainly black Bermudians evicted from the land there in the 1920s.
Mr Barritt said in the House of Assembly there was no question those people “were unrepresented and poor and were taken advantage of. That's still a history that's not been written, and ought to be written, and we ought to be empathetic and sensitive to that. And I know Government is doing its best to be sensitive to that”.
He added that he is not sure the stringent environmental conditions in the SDO are stringent enough.
In addition, he raised concern over a deed of covenant he said exists between Tucker's Point and the Mid Ocean Club, which sold it the land. According to Mr Barritt, the covenant prevents the land within the SDO being built upon.
“Now this SDO would allow development on that property,” he said.
Mr Roban interjected to say that passing the SDO does not mean there will be building on the site, as plans would still have to be approved by the Development Applications Board.
“To suggest this SDO allows development is misleading,” he said.
However, Mr Barritt replied that the SDO purports to give approval in principal for development, and said: “I just think it's an important fact to get out on the table and have answered.”
He said that in the interests of openness, he should also tell the House the law firm for which he works, Mello Jones and Martin, has no direct interest in this matter but may later be retained by one of the parties involved.
Overall, he said: “Really what we are doing is getting Tucker's Point out of a financial hole, and the impression I get is that they're close to insolvency. If we have the money I'm sure we would like to bail out everybody who's in trouble, but I'm not sure this is the right approach.”
According to Opposition MP Mr Barritt, there is a limit to what can be done, in terms of the amount of hotel properties developed on the Island.
He said the public was being convinced they had to approve the SDO or the Island would suffer, but said it was not wise to “throw good land after bad money”.
Mr Barritt said he found himself unable to support the SDO and claimed it was too big of a gamble to take.
Deputy Premier Derrick Burgess fully supported the bill and said approving the SDO for Tucker's Point would save jobs and boost the amount of high-class visitors coming to our shores.
He said: “We have to save the tourism industry, we have to save the hotel industry. It doesn't make sense saying 'lets close this, close that' and what's the alternative? No jobs?”
The Public Works Minister said the Island had to change its way of doing things and stop putting too many rules and regulations on people coming to invest in Bermuda if it wanted to be successful.
Bermuda Democratic Alliance MP Shawn Crockwell said he was in support of the SDO being passed, but questioned whether the developers were moving the project forward in a bid to get themselves out of debt.
He said he respected organisations like Bermuda Environment Sustainability Taskforce (BEST) for raising environmental concerns about the project, including the caves and mass of undeveloped land.
But said: “We can't have a mindset in this country that prevents us from progressing because we will never achieve what we want to achieve.”
Mr Crockwell said the Island needed to do its part in attracting high-end, high-class visitors who would spend their money and added: “It could be the life line tourism needs and what this country needs going forward to create opportunities.
“But if there is another motive [speaking] for the people of this country than I would be very concerned about that and I would think accountability would have to be there going forward.”
Attorney General Michael Scott said: “There was no other agenda other than for the Government to be supportive for the national interest.”
He said while the public had expressed some environmental concerns, the Minister had already extended the protection list to include endemic plants and yellowwood trees.