by Larry Smith
MARSH HARBOUR, Abaco - The acrimonious and long-running effort by some residents of Guana Cay to derail the multi-million-dollar Baker's Bay development came to an end last November when the Privy Council ruled against the Save Guana Cay Reef Association, represented by Freeport lawyer Fred Smith.
The environmental contract between the Baker's Bay Club and the University of Miami also came to an end last year, and Dr Kathleen Sullivan-Sealey, the marine biologist who ran the environmental management programme, was at the Abaco Science Alliance conference in Marsh Harbour this past weekend. She gave a report on five year's of work that has been billed as the first "case study on sustainable tourism" in the Bahamas.
Tough Call was also at the conference, which is organised every two years by Abaco Friends of the Environment. And Sullivan-Sealey was one of a slew of scientists who shared their recent Bahamian research. Presentations were given on the behaviour of deep-diving beaked whales in the Tongue of the Ocean; the results of the first Bahamian conch fishery survey in 15 years; recent fossil discoveries in the Sawmill Sink blue hole south of Marsh Harbour; bonefish conservation; coral reef assessments; and community-based tourism.
The controversial Baker's Bay project was launched in 2004 by a California-based developer on 585 acres of mostly private land on the northern third of Guana Cay. Like all such projects it has been affected by the global economic downturn, but the 165-slip marina and adjacent "village" opened for business last year. The 18-hole golf course is partially complete, and installed infrastructure includes a reverse osmosis facility for potable water, a sewerage system and a waste treatment plant, as well as roads for the 244 homesites with underground utilities.
The University of Miami contract was for an environmental management programme aimed at mitigating disturbed areas and protecting important ecosystems while monitoring the overall development process.
The work began with baseline studies of the site and nearshore waters in 2004 and included the removal of invasive species, the restoration of coastal dunes, the integration of advanced infrastructure projects, and the preservation of native vegetation. The total cost of the environmental programme itself was almost a million dollars over the life of the contract, while mitigation and infrastructure costs totalled over $10 million.
In fact, despite the often bad press it has received over the years, Baker's Bay is the only development in the Bahamas with full-time professionals responsible for active environmental management and EIA compliance - Bahamian marine biologist Livingstone Marshall is a vice president.
According to Sullivan-Sealey, the UM contract was a unique partnership between a private development company and academic scientists, with one of the biggest pluses being "the training and exposure of College of The Bahamas students to the realities of development."
Born in Missouri, Sullivan-Sealey's interest in the marine environment was sparked by childhood visits to her grandparents' home in the Florida Keys. "Early fishing trips turned into illustrated discussions of the environmental future of the Keys and South Florida," she recalled.
"In 1984 I was appointed to the faculty of the University of Miami and by that time the Keys had undergone rapid dredge-and-fill growth, and political fights were underway on how to control the valuable real estate and tourism industries. The islands of the Bahamas are now faced with the same rapid development and expansion seen in the Florida Keys in the 1960s and 70s."
In 2002 she began leading a 10-year study on the coastal ecology of the Bahamas sponsored by the Earthwatch Institute, an international environmental charity that engages student volunteers in field research and education. The focus of this work has been to understand how natural vegetation protects coastlines, and how pollution affects nearshore waters and fisheries. The Guana Cay research represents one small piece of this giant puzzle.
"In 2004 I was asked to look at the Baker's Bay site and see how to keep the ecology intact throughout the development process," she told the Abaco conference. "The idea was to document best practices in sustainable development, and it was exciting to have developers actually talking and listening to me. I looked at projects all over the Bahamas to see what works and what doesn't. I wanted to learn why developers do things that are so destructive to the environment, and I wanted to set measurable environmental goals that they could follow."
The research began with a rapid ecological assessment to get a good characterisation of the site prior to development. Experts from the Antiquities, Monuments & Museums Corporation conducted a historical/archaeological survey of the property while a team from Florida's Fairchild Tropical Garden undertook an inventory of plants and set up a protected plant management programme. Rather than bring in new stock from Florida, native plants were cultivated for landscaping and coastal restoration from cuttings taken on the island.
On the marine side, scientists monitored water quality before, during and after construction of the marina to generate the data needed to meet Blue Flag environmental standards. The Blue Flag programme is a voluntary eco-label awarded to marinas around the world that meet strict criteria dealing with water quality, safety and environmental education and management.
Huge quantities of debris and garbage were removed from all coastal areas of the Baker's Bay site - especially from the derelict shore facility built decades ago to service cruise ship passengers - and artificial reefs were deployed in degraded nearshore areas and seeded with transplanted corals. Over 90 acres of casuarina trees were removed from the shoreline and mulched so that the developers could recreate natural Bahamian dunes planted with locally grown sea oats, And scores of diseased wild cats were trapped and euthanised.
Coastal setbacks were established for each type of shoreline on the site along with buffer zones where no building is allowed. At least 20 feet of natural vegetation was reserved between lots and along roads. And homeowners are required to use xeroscaping and native plants to conserve fresh water resources.
In addition, two large nature preserves were established to protect mangrove areas along with a turtle nest monitoring programme that reports directly to the Department of Marine Resources. More than 150 checkpoints were set up throughout the site to monitor environmental impacts as the development progressed.
On the minus side, Sullivan-Sealey cited the general lack of science literacy among employers, staff and customers as a big problem. "We conducted employee training and public outreach programmes, but these need to be very aggressive in order to get environmental principles across. There was also inadequate policing of subcontractors for environmental compliance and almost no government oversight of the project - we don't even know if the BEST Commission read our reports."
Arguing that projects like Baker's Bay should put environmental management on the same level as marketing, she estimated that 17-20 per cent of total project investment should be devoted to environmental programmes:
"Turbidity from dredging was a big challenge and it was a constant battle to ensure that sediment curtains were in place," she said. "Fourteen-foot-wide roads needed 70 feet cleared for infrastructure installation.The sheer rate of development was unexpected for us, and equipment always wins on a fast-paced development site. Plans change and there is no such thing as a perfect development, but the important thing is how you monitor practices."
In short, as with most things in life, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and the devil is in the details. The main conclusion we can draw from the experience at Baker's Bay is that the EIA process can and should be advanced from a static exercise to an ongoing monitoring process in order to achieve key environmental and resource management goals.
It is ironic that the Baker's Bay project invested so heavily in this groundbreaking environmental management programme while the government's $105 million heavy fuel oil power plant under construction nearby at Wilson City on Abaco proceeded with little consultation or thought and has been under sustained attack from some citizens groups for being environmentally irresponsible.
The new power plant was in fact promised to the developers of the Baker's Bay and Winding Bay resorts by the Christie administration years ago to meet Abaco's rising electricity demand, but critics say it will be a pollution nightmare and have filed for judicial review. Fred Smith is the lawyer leading the lawsuit.
"The Baker's Bay project clearly shows how long-term planning, up-front resources and an in-depth understanding of tropical island environments are required for environmentally responsible development," Sullivan-Sealey wrote in the 2009 edition of the Journal of Sustainable Tourism. "The benefits (stabilising the shoreline, reducing pollution and protecting biodiversity) will support the long-term viability of a tourism project."
Success depends on three key planks, she says: promoting better understanding of environmental issues, convincing policymakers to take a longer view of economic development, and building partnerships with developers.