The future of Plett is at stake

THE FUTURE OF PLETT IS AT STAKE

 

Central Beach, Plettenberg Bay

 

With permission from Gallo Images

Imagine this area, hemmed in by seven-storey buildings and massive concrete breakwaters,

with the river mouth gone and the beach gone.

 

Is that what you want?

No? Then read on.

 

What is going to happen?

 

A mysterious company called Western Cape Marina Investments (Pty) Ltd with no track record, and not even a website, plans to create a massive development in and around the Piesang River mouth and Central Beach, the heart of Plettenberg Bay and its most popular tourist spot.

 

Details are vague. After numerous requests the developers have come up with a video showing a fanciful and obviously incorrect artist’s impression of the supposed development which was shown to the public on 18 May but the architect concerned made it very clear that this was NOT the real thing since a final design would cost millions and the developer will not lay out that kind of money until he has approval for the project. So we have to make a choice for or against this development with no clear idea of what it will look like.

 

However, we are told that it will cover 87 000 m2 and also have 2 148 parking bays (644 basement and 1 504 open bays). To put this into perspective, the Market Square Shopping Centre in Beacon Street, Plettenberg Bay’s only mall, has 14 500 m2 of retail space and 582 parking bays, so we are talking about floor space six times the size of Market Square.

 

There will be 8 residential buildings ranging in height from 3 to 7 floors, giant penthouses, 1 343m2 of offices and commercial space, a 110 room 5-star hotel of some 6 600 m2, 17 mansions along Central Beach, 8 700 m2 of retail space, a plaza and yacht club, provision for light industry, plus all those parking bays. All in the little Piesang River mouth.

 

An executive summary of the scoping report can be downloaded from http://showme.co.za/plett/files/2013/04/Plett-SBH-Executive-Summary.pdf .

 

The developer is pretending that the purpose is really to establish a small boat harbour. That is patent nonsense. No small boat harbour can be viable in the Piesang River mouth. Read the report and you will see that it will need massive breakwaters and constant dredging, and cost millions per year to keep going. You cannot earn back this sort of money from some small boats, most of which will only be used in two months of the year.

 

Just as a golf estate outside a city needs a large number of houses around it to become viable from a financial point of view, this harbour will need the 8 high-rise buildings, a massive hotel, etc. to be viable. It could not exist on its own.

 

In fact, a little harbour might be an attractive feature on its own to some people despite the environmental cost, but as a return on investment it will be pathetic – and whatever you do, a harbour cannot be created without massive concrete breakwaters towering over Central Beach, constant dredging, and all the rest.

 

 

 

A ground floor schematic layout plan of the proposed development

(Source: Bartsch Consult (Pty) Ltd)

 

Just as an aside, the municipality will have to demolish the desalination plant on which it spent close to R30 m not so long ago, and probably have to bear the cost of relocating it, for the developer makes it clear that he will not.

 

The developer reckons the desalination plant was constructed illegally. He will magnanimously pay for the cost of a separate Environmental Impact Assessment (a tiny portion of total cost) but not for actually building another desalination plant. This cost will probably run to at least R50 m, funded by, guess who – the ratepayers.

 

Where are we in the process?

 

A gigantic scoping report with 14 appendices of over 2 000 pages has just been published and can be downloaded from the Internet. It has been drawn up by a panel of consultants working for the developer who has been talking to numerous groups in Plett and been employing an army of experts. Clearly someone is laying out a lot of money.

 

Although all the letters, conversations and other interactions with interested parties are reflected in the report for anyone with the time to wade through a gigantic document so dense with scientific and legal jargon, do not be surprised to find that the consultants found that despite all the objections raised, it is generally OK to go ahead with the next stage, which is a full scale environmental impact assessment (EIA).

 

After all, we know who is paying the consultants’ fees: the developer.

 

Much was made of a public Open Day on 18 May 2013 from 09h00 to 14h00 at the Country Crescent Hotel. Most people expected some debate to take place but in fact the consultants just manned some cubicles and chatted to passers-by interested in their work.

If they have been brushing aside all negative input up to now, why would this change in future?

A 50-page report by a local lawyer questioning the legality of every single phase of the process up to now is included in the appendices but nowhere in this vast scoping report is there any attempt to refute any of the allegations. The municipality originally called for proposals but no tender process was ever entered into. The municipality has also had this legal report in hand for six months now and has so far declined to comment on it, despite repeated promises to do so.

How on earth did this come about?

Well, there is a bit of history. It all started back in 1998 and has dragged on for 15 years. Originally there was a large fleet of fishing boats that anchored regularly just off Central Beach and was interfering with the tourist industry. The town council wanted to get them out of the way and into a harbour, so called for proposals.

 

Some sort of heads of agreement of dubious legality was signed at the time with the current developer but rolled over from year to year, until the new DA town council insisted 18 months ago that the developer either goes ahead or pulls out. He decided to go ahead.

 

Ironically, as we all know, the fishing fleet (and the fish) is long gone but the report still pretends they exist, and in fact the harbour makes provision for chokka boats.

 

Who is this developer?

 

As mentioned earlier, Western Cape Marina Investments (Pty) Ltd has no track record, and not even a website. However, some details about all companies are a matter of public record with the Companies and Intellectual Property Commissioner (CIPC).

 

We find that the directors of the company are Peter Ahern, based in Johannesburg, who has been dealing with our municipality all these years, and one Gerald Zadikoff, who is based in Miami, Florida, and is CEO of GM Selby Inc, an international consulting engineering firm, which advertises on its website that it is involved in the Plett development.

 

According to CIPC, Peter Ahern is director of 8 companies, none of which has a website. He is also director of no less than 18 deregistered companies, and of 2 companies in voluntary liquidation. We somehow doubt he has the several billions needed for this project.

 

Since the only other director is an American national working all over the world as consulting engineer, one has to come to the conclusion that Western Cape Marina Investments is merely a shell working for someone else.

 

The question is: who?

 

One would have thought the town council would know, and especially our mayor, who has been involved with this deal since inception. However, if they know, they are not telling us.

 

Although this is the biggest project in the history of this town, the town council did not seem to consider it worthwhile doing a due diligence (an investigation of a business prior to signing a contract) at any stage, so they do not know who the shareholders are, where the money will be coming from, whether there is any money, whether the company has tax clearance, whether it has any experience of any similar major construction projects, whether there is a BEE partnership in place, etc.

 

Either the council knows nothing or they are not telling us. But such secrecy makes one suspect the worse.

 

Here are some theories:

 

  • There is in fact no developer, just a shell company that will sell on the permission to develop to a major developer once the long and painful process of getting official permission has been finalised.
  • The developer never intended to actually build seven-story buildings etc. All along they are planning a smaller scale project, and in the end they might give in gracefully and settle for something smaller than they pretended to want all along, while the public will be only too happy that they have scored a victory over big business.
  • Once all the approvals have gone through, it might emerge that there is a casino company in the wings with the political clout to obtain a gambling license, which will suddenly make financial sense of the whole development. However, is this what this town wants or needs?

 

One could go on. If these theories are unfounded, they can be negated easily. The developer just needs to step forward and announce and explain himself, instead of hiding behind consultants.

 

The worst scenario would be a company that only builds the project halfway and then runs out of money, leaving us with a gigantic concrete carcass; or alternatively does complete the development, which then flops, leaving a ghost development and a massively expensive harbour to be operated and funded by the town council, i.e. the ratepayers.

 

Even if a guarantee is given by the developer to run the harbour for say 25 years, a guarantee is only as good as the company: if it goes bust, so does the guarantee.

 

Does Plett need such a development?

 

The consultants, paid by the developer, say yes.

They broadly base this statement on two points, namely that the local economy needs stimulation and that the project will create work for the unemployed.

Let us examine both premises:

Does the local economy need stimulation?

I think just about everyone in Plett would say “yes”. For the past five years the local economy has been in recession. It is totally dependent on tourism, and it has been floundering, as has the rest of the Southern Cape coast dependent on tourism.

Question is, is this development what we need?

Construction, it is estimated by the consultants, will take at least four years and in that time there will be little tourism in Plett, for its most popular beach will be a vast, noisy and dusty construction site, splitting the town in two, since the site is exactly where the two halves of the town meet with one narrow road connecting them.

The consultants themselves admit that many shops, restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfast places, etc. will go bankrupt in that period. They also admit that Piesang Valley Road “is likely to totally degrade in a relatively short period of time” because of constant heavy vehicle traffic. They also admit that the effect on Central Beach, the main recreation area for locals and visitors, will be extremely detrimental. So good-bye Plett Rage, good-bye New Year’s Eve.

Scuba diving will be a thing of the past. In fact, the Beacon Isle Hotel management believe, according to the consultants, that the construction and loss of parking will effectively render the hotel inoperable. Its ambience and views will be permanently spoiled.

Some 30% of our Main Street buildings are standing empty, and just about every second house is for sale, and many have been for sale for many years. Do we really think that ADDING massively to the housing and retail space will have a beneficial effect on our town?

Tourists come here from all over the world to enjoy our beaches, our views and our natural beauty. Why would they come for another little concrete Dubai? Forget about cute little harbours on the Mediterranean coast. This is not what this is going to be like.

Main Street will simply die. Some shop owners may try to relocate to the new development but rentals will be sky high and preference will be given to national franchises, as is the case in every major mall in the country, so many local restaurants and shopkeepers will close down.

Yes, we do need to develop the local economy. We desperately need to upgrade the Central Beach area. But THIS is not what we need. Plett tourism may never recover.

Will the project create jobs?

Yes, of course it will. Most of the jobs will only last as long as the construction period though, i.e. four years if you believe the consultants.

The highly skilled people needed for this project will mostly have to come from elsewhere, for the town has a limited skills base. However, a major problem presents itself with regard to unskilled and semi-skilled labour.

Naturally the local unemployed people are enthusiastic about the prospect of more job opportunities, although nowhere do the consultants calculate the likely LOSS of job opportunities through other hotels etc. closing because of suddenly increased competition.

Local communities made it very clear though that they would not tolerate that work be given to people from outside town and that such action would cause major unrest. Sadly, our constitution does not discriminate against people on the basis of the place they come from, and naturally major construction work will attract unemployed workers from all over the Western and Eastern Cape.

Are we going to bring back the pass laws to stop them from coming here? How on earth do you guarantee work for local people? Can the municipality give any such guarantees? Are they in any way enforceable?

Unemployed people will come from all over and some of them will find work here, and when the construction is done they will stay here and be unemployed again.

Conclusion

We would all like our town to recover its vigour. The reality though is that its tourism is highly seasonal and will remain so because of the weather and because we are far from major urban centres (with no airport).

The consultant who wrote the socio-economic section himself admits that “the general consensus is that the scale and scope of the proposed development is too large for Plett in its current form, and that the negative impacts on land owners and the business community outweigh any benefits which may accrue through employment creation and increased economic activity.”

 

Oddly enough, he then in the very next paragraph concludes that the size of the project might kick-start a new flood of tourism to Plett, since the project “may be the catalyst which is required to lift the tourism industry to the next level and improve the industry for the benefit of all.”

 

This is like arguing that we should build a massive skyscraper on top of Table Mountain to improve tourism in Cape Town. The reason why tourists go to Cape Town is to see Table Mountain as a miracle of nature in itself.

 

Tourists come to Plett for the same reason: to experience nature, wonderful beaches and views, not to sit in high-rise buildings and lounge on concrete squares.

 

This project is so bizarre and out of scale with the town that locals, home owners and tourists should just say no. The emperor has no clothes, and another 5 000 pages of quasi-legal and scientific rigmarole will not put clothes on him.

If you agree with this view and would like to help put an end to this madness, send a short email to Eforum@mweb.co.za giving your contact details and stating your view on this development. You will thereafter be kept in the loop with regard to any further developments.

Then send this email on to any of your friends who also care about Plett. Send it not only to residents or people with property in Plettenberg Bay but also to any visitors, local or overseas, you know who love Plettenberg Bay for what it is, and would like to help prevent it being turned into a miniature Dubai. Our visitors are also important stakeholders in the jewel of the Garden Route. 

 

Plettenberg Bay Community Environment Forum

 

 

Thank you for your support of our endeavours to protect the environment ... and YOU!!