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Fears that Fairmont Southampton plan will ‘saturate property with villas’

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An archive photo of the Fairmont Southampton highlighting the area of Turtle Hill - one of the areas slated for development under a 2009 Special Development Order (File photograph)

A plan for “well over 300” units at the Fairmont Southampton was presented to environmental groups last year, a conservation charity said.

The Bermuda National Trust added that the scheme would “saturate the property with villas” if it went ahead.

Gencom said earlier that a level of residential development was needed to support investment at the iconic hotel, which it acquired in 2019.

A consultant for the company highlighted yesterday that the Government knows about the firm’s intention to propose an amendment to an existing Special Development Order.

But she did not confirm whether plans had changed since they were shown to environmental groups last May.

Karen Border, executive director of the Bermuda National Trust (File photograph)

Karen Border, the BNT’s executive director, highlighted the 2009 SDO for the resort that gave planning permission in principle for 130 fractional tourism and residential units.

She said in a statement run as an Opinion article today: “Until a planning application has been submitted, we won’t know the full extent of the new proposal.

“However, the master plan discussed at a preliminary scoping meeting between Bermuda Environmental Consulting – on behalf of Gencom – and environmental NGOs in May 2021 showed well over 300 units planned.

“If this is still the plan, it seems very likely that a further SDO will be sought and granted allowing for this increased number, which will saturate the property with villas, and related driveways and car parks.

“Just the golf course – or part of the golf course – and a tiny amount of manicured garden around the hotel itself will be left undeveloped.”

Ms Border said that the BNT “absolutely understands the need to revive our tourism industry”.

But she added: “Allowing every inch of tourism-zoned land to be built on with residential units is simply not sustainable.”

Karim Alibhai, the founder and principal of Gencom, a Miami-based investment firm, said earlier that the residential component of the project "will be very thoughtfully done“.

Cheryl Jones, an independent consultant to Gencom and its subsidiary Westend Properties, said that much of the land earmarked for development in the 2009 SDO – which is still valid – was on Turtle Hill, which was “completely vacant”.

Ms Border said: “It is this attitude to our natural, green spaces that puts our island at risk of becoming nothing but a concrete jungle.

“The land is not ‘vacant’. It is occupied by trees and other green plants that provide us with oxygen and cool our island.

“It is inhabited by wildlife such as birds, lizards, toads and insects, including bees which are so essential to pollinate our crops and fruiting plants.”

Mr Alibhai said earlier this month that there was not a “full breakdown” of the number of properties planned.

Ms Jones admitted that the company was “looking at the opportunity of potentially converting some of the golf into residential if it makes sense”.

The Royal Gazette understands that a 2021 proposed master plan for the Fairmont Southampton laid out a design that included 366 units, across five parcels of land.

Among them were believed to be 117 units on a “golf replacement” plot, which suggested that the award-winning par 3 course could be reduced by five holes.

Ms Jones said yesterday: “The Bermuda Government knows that we intend to submit an amendment to the existing SDO and that we are doing so through their prescribed and documented due process.

“It would be premature to pre-empt this process by providing further details at this time, but … we are progressing with the completion of economic, traffic and environmental studies.

“We will also hold community meetings, as appropriate and required by the planning department, and as part of this process, all relevant documents will be in the public domain in due course.”

She did not say whether more than 300 units were still proposed for the hotel site or if the plan has changed since last May.

A Ministry of Home Affairs spokeswoman confirmed last week that the Department of Planning had "provided advice on a conceptual development on the site of the Fairmont Southampton“.

She said: “An application for planning permission has not been received; if a formal application is received it will be published as per the department’s normal procedures and all documentation associated with the application will be publicly available.

“It is noted, however, that any major development requires an Environmental Impact Assessment, an assessment which includes public consultation.”

The spokeswoman confirmed that permission contained in the 2009 SDO remained valid "given the commencement of works associated with a portion of this development, which occurred prior to the SDO’s expiry“.

Drafting for new SDO regulations in process

Legislation that changes the way Special Development Orders are granted will take effect “in due course”, a government spokeswoman said.

Regulations being drafted for the Development and Planning Amendment Act 2021 are expected to provide greater clarity on the process.

Environmental groups have raised concerns about the legislation because it will mean that SDOs are subject to the negative resolution procedure rather than being debated in the House of Assembly first.

The Act provided that public consultation of any environmental impact assessment of a proposed development would be mandatory.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Home Affairs said last week: “In respect of the new regulations concerning the issuance of Special Development Orders, the Development and Planning Amendment Act 2021 will be in force in due course; the drafting process has started and will provide procedure clarity on the amendments provided in the Amendment Act.”

Walter Roban, the home affairs minister, told The Royal Gazette last July that there were “no projects and no developments that I have seen or have been proposed that would benefit” from the planning Act changes.

He added: “This is not in the context of any anticipated development.”

Mr Roban said the amendment Act would boost oversight by requiring public consultation of an EIA of a proposed development before any SDO.

A spokeswoman for Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce, said that the organisation was among environmental groups and individuals that formed a Planning Applications Review Team in 2019.

PART meets online weekly to monitor planning applications and “to better understand the island's land-use policies and practices”.

The BEST spokeswoman explained that BEC attended a meeting last May and gave a presentation of the scheme under consideration for the Fairmont Southampton site.

She said: “Three slides of the conceptual drawings of the overall plan to be proposed … were shown and we talked around the concept as best we could, given we were seeing the visuals and hearing the high-level information for the first time.

“We understood that BEC had been engaged by Gencom to produce the Environmental Impact Assessment that would be needed to support an in-principle application to planning, and perhaps a Special Development Order application to Parliament, and that more information in the form of a scoping report – a framework for achieving a comprehensive EIA – would be shared with us in about a month.”

The spokeswoman added that the group did not receive the report although notes from the meeting were received last June, when it was recognised that the preliminary consultation did not give enough time to fully consider the proposal.

BEC "indicated that they would be happy to meet again“ but she said that the group did not request a meeting, mainly because it was waiting for the scoping report.

The BEST spokeswoman added: “We e-mailed them in mid-December 2021 asking if there was an update on the proposed project that they could share with us.

“The reply was that they had no updates.”

A spokeswoman for the Bermuda Audubon Society confirmed that the group was also represented at the meeting with BEC last May.

She added that “the scoping report has not yet been shared with us and we do not know whether or not it has been completed”.

* To see the 2009 Special Development Order for the Fairmont Southampton, click on the PDF under “Related Media”.

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Published April 11, 2022 at 8:05 am (Updated April 11, 2022 at 9:31 am)

Fears that Fairmont Southampton plan will ‘saturate property with villas’

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