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Environmental pushback begins against Fairmont Southampton plans

Controversial: an artist impression showing the placement and scale — but not the final design — of units that will be built at the Fairmont Southampton resort if the special development order is approved (Photograph supplied)

Environmental groups have been “bombarded” with calls from members of the public who are “outraged” at the redevelopment plans for the Fairmont Southampton hotel.

Residents are being urged to apply “public pressure” to the Government with a view to getting the project scaled back.

But the company behind the development has defended its plans, claiming that in order to contain the footprint of new buildings — including 261 new residential and tourism units — it had opted to “build up instead of building out“.

Some of the new builds are six storeys high.

Westend Properties Ltd also claimed that the artist impressions it contained in its special development order were not “an accurate reflection” of how the resort will look when completed.

The SDO application for the controversial expansion was made public on Wednesday, raising alarm among environmental groups.

Documents in the application contained artist impressions of six-storey residential blocks dominating the skyline, while an environmental impact report noted that 261 new units will have a “major” visual impact on the property.

Kim Smith, the executive director of the Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce, said the organisation was shocked by the scale of the plan.

Ms Smith said: “Of course, like the majority of others, we are flabbergasted by what is being proposed.

“The SDO was published just yesterday and BEST and the other NGOs are being bombarded by a very outraged public.”

Ms Smith said that BEST was planning “various levels of response”.

She added: “We will keep the public informed about how they can express their sense of outrage at a government that is obviously willing to work with these wealthy, foreign developers to destroy a most beautiful area of open space so critically important to Bermuda’s appeal to visitors and residents alike.

“It’s unbelievable and unforgivable. Shame on them.“

The Bermuda Audubon Society also expressed shock at the plan, describing it as a “publicly subsidised real estate development“.

A spokeswoman said: “The society is aghast at the scope and scale of the newly proposed SDO.

“We encourage the entire community to review the application and submit their objections to the Department of Planning. We also urge the public to contact Premier [David] Burt, home affairs minister Walter Roban, their MPs and senators to voice their concerns.

“The people of Bermuda must let our leaders know that we do not want our beautiful open spaces to be overrun with development. This is not the future that we want for Bermuda.”

Karen Border, the executive director of the Bermuda National Trust, said the organisation had received calls from residents asking how to file objections against the development.

Ms Border said: “There is clearly a very significant degree of public dismay over this proposed development. We will be putting information on our website by the weekend to assist those who wish to make a formal objection.

“Public pressure is our best hope of saving some of the recreational open space on the resort and preventing the condos from being built.”

All three organisations emphasised that they did not oppose renovations to the main hotel building, which has been closed since 2020.

But they made clear that the addition of 261 condominiums — 147 of which have been earmarked for residential rather that tourism use — was a blight on the landscape.

Hotel developer Gencom bought the hotel in 2019, closing it a year later ahead of an extensive refurbishment programme.

The development made headlines when, in subsequent negotiations with the Government, Gencom was given substantial tax breaks and a loan guarantee of $75 million, prompting criticism from Opposition MPs. Curtis Dickinson, the Minister of Finance at the time, resigned last year because he could not support the deal.

The project has also been hit by delays, with timelines being frequently redrawn.

The revelation last week that the new development will include 261 new units has caused further controversy.

The project is now expected to cost $540 million over 20 years, with a renovated hotel opening towards the end of next year.

What happens next?

The Fairmont Southampton SDO was posted on the Government’s website on Wednesday, giving residents until May 3 to submit objections.

Once the deadline has been reached, technical officers from the Department of Planning will conduct “a comprehensive assessment of the proposal”, taking into consideration all feedback.

That assessment and any recommendations on behalf of the Director of Planning will then be forwarded to the Development Applications Board, along with any other correspondence, including objections.

The board will then consider the application before passing the SDO and its own recommendations on to the Minister of Home Affairs.

Previously, SDOs then had to then undergo parliamentary scrutiny by being debated in the House of Assembly and approved by a vote.

But in 2021 Walter Roban, the home affairs minister, steered through amendments to regulations, giving the minister the authority to approve an SDO before it went to Parliament.

The minister is still required to bring an approved SDO to the House on the negative resolution procedure, and a debate can then be forced if an MP objects to the SDO. However, no vote is taken and approval cannot be reversed.

A government spokesman said: “It is important to note that any person may submit comments on the submission, regardless of whether they would be directly impacted by the proposal. Comments may be submitted in the form of a formal objection or as a ‘representation’.

“Objections and representations should be submitted within 21 calendar days of the application being advertised in the Official Gazette.

“As required by law and in the interest of fairness to applicants, objectors and the general public, the Ministry of Home Affairs will not comment on any application outside of the established process in law.

“That process should be followed by all of those who wish to express their views on any application. It should be noted that the public consultation period for this application ends on May 3, 2023.”

Objections can be filed on the Government’s Department of Planning portal here.

The spokeswoman for the Audubon Society said: “Most of these residential units will be within massive six-storey hilltop villas. These units will be afforded concessions including relief from land tax, payroll tax and custom duties as outlined in the recently passed Fairmont Southampton Hotel Act 2023, even though they are not tourism units.

“The construction will also impact ten acres — one quarter — of the Turtle Hill golf course. How can the replacement of scenic open space on a highly regarded golf course with high-density residential development be good for tourism in Bermuda?

“How will the people of Bermuda benefit from this publicly subsidised real estate development?

“These are just two examples of the many questions raised by this proposal. As we review the details, many more questions will follow.”

She added: “With the publication of the request to make a special development order, the clock is now ticking.

“The public have only three weeks to review more than 350 pages of an environmental impact statement, which can be quite technical and has taken over a year to prepare.

“More time needs to be allowed for the public to review and comment on this important proposal.”

Responding to the public outcry, a spokeswoman for Gencom and its subsidiary, Westend, said: “Westend would like to emphasise that the renderings that appeared in Thursday’s Royal Gazette in no way represent how we envisage incorporating the proposed tourism and residential units into the existing Fairmont Southampton property.

“These were prepared solely for planning purposes and in support of our application for a special development order. As such, they are not architectural renderings — the white blocks as shown are merely meant to be placeholders as part of the planning process.

“In order to keep the footprint small, we have opted to build up instead of building out. While some of the proposed buildings will be six storeys, none will be higher than the hotel itself.

“Above all, the units will be thoughtfully designed and integrated into the landscape for a cohesive look and feel, similar to the units that were built at Tucker’s Point.”

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Published April 14, 2023 at 7:57 am (Updated April 14, 2023 at 8:01 am)

Environmental pushback begins against Fairmont Southampton plans

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