by Larry Smith
Until about 12 years ago most Bahamians had no involvement in development proposals. The government and the developers made all the decisions - behind closed doors - and few people were bothered about it, so long as the money was coming in.
As one longtime conservationist told me, "Back then there was very little awareness about the environment. We couldn't even talk to the government directly about these things. We had to provide our input through others - like the Inter-American Development Bank."
That's what happened in 1989, when the first PLP government decided to move the port to Clifton Point. There was no public consultation, but experts said the environmental costs were too great, so the IADB refused to provide financing. Meanwhile, the 200 acres of private land that had been compulsorily acquired for the port (without actually being paid for) were simply forgotten.
Fast forward to 1997 and those 200 acres were part of a 600-acre tract of private land at Clifton being proposed for a Lyford Cay-type gated community by Canadian investors Jeffrey Waterous, Brian Sweeney and Tad Bachman. Construction was slated to begin the next year.
A lawyer by profession, Maillis is also a self-taught naturalist who lives in splendid isolation at Adelaide. Over the years he has explored every inch of New Providence, and he used his specialized knowledge to create a rough land use plan, identifying important natural and historical sites. In the 1990s he was using this map as a visual aid for lectures on ecotourism.
"I knew a lot about the historical and natural features of Clifton, which was the last coastal wilderness on New Providence," he said. "All the other coastal tracts were already slated for development and I realised this island would not be worth living on if that project went ahead. It was a major socioeconomic issue for me."
So Maillis began campaigning against the project, and others were soon describing Clifton as "the most valuable piece of undeveloped property in the Caribbean." The campaign was spurred on by the environmental damage inflicted on Hall's Pond Cay in the Exuma national park by Czech financier Victor Kozeny, and on Bimini by Cuban-American developer Gerardo Capo.
Meanwhile, the Clifton Cay developers said they would invest $400 million over 10 years, building canals, a golf course, a 70-slip marina, a clubhouse and over 600 luxury homes. It was unclear what would happen to the 18th century plantation ruins, the Lucayan settlement remains, the forest or the wetlands. But there was no doubt that the project would provide hundreds of jobs and millions in revenues.
In early 1999 the government held a town meeting on the project. In response to Maillis' call for an official New Providence land use plan, Planning Director Michael Major said there was no legislation in place for this, adding that zoning regulations dated from 1959, and had been drafted with no public input.
After the town meeting, opponents led by Pastor C. B. Moss formed the Coalition to Save Clifton Cay, arguing that the government was "selling our birthright for a mess of pottage." And seeing that the issue was gaining political traction, the opposition PLP called the development "harmful", and urged protection of this "sacred" land as a national park.
At the BNT's annual general meeting in 1999, Maillis moved a controversial resolution against the development that won overwhelming support from the membership. But in a belated public statement, Executive Director Gary Larsen sought to distance the Trust from the dispute, saying it was not an activist group: "Our role as a partner in the environmental review process is to submit our concerns and recommendations to government," he said.
By 2000 the developers were getting cold feet, despite having spent millions on preparatory costs, including a big media blitz. The dispute made international headlines when an FNM official threatened to put Robert F Kennedy Jr on the stop list for meddling in Bahamian affairs. Opponents - backed by wealthy Lyford Cay residents - had brought in RFK Jr, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, to speak against the development.
As the 2002 general election neared, the Clifton issue ballooned. Following a massive turnout for an island-wide motorcade protesting the project, the government sought to shore up its environmental credentials by naming 10 new national parks around the country at a single stroke. But a few days later the FNM was wiped out at the polls - only five years after it had won a smashing landslide victory.
"From our perspective Clifton was a straightforward matter," Environment Minister Earl Deveaux told me recently. "The land had been acquired by government for a port, the owner wanted it back, and we were returning it while also accommodating a major investment that would benefit the economy. Compromises made by the developer would have protected the important natural and historical assets."
Making good on their pledge, the new PLP government paid $24 million to buy the land and set up the Clifton Heritage Authority. But at almost the same time they announced the equally controversial Baha Mar deal, giving away hundreds of acres on Cable Beach in pursuit of jobs and revenues. This was followed by the transfer of 10,000 acres of Crown land on Mayaguana to another foreign developer for a project that ultimately went nowhere.
"The Clifton issue did take on a life of its own, but it was not only thing to influence the election," Maillis told me. "Clifton is a marvellous place that will contribute a lot to our social stability, but it cost the treasury millions, and I realize that you simply can't go around acquiring every piece of land that someone thinks should be a park."
Today, some of the same cast of characters from the Clifton saga are starring in new battles over development, conservation, and local government. It is a never-ending struggle that demands a careful and constant balancing act from those who are responsible for overseeing our economy and quality of life - and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
In Abaco, for example, the government recently overruled a unanimous decision of the local council against redevelopment of the 19-acre Elbow Cay Club near Hope Town. The club sits on prime waterfront land, but has not operated as a resort for decades. It presently serves as a dilapidated rooming house for Haitians. American developers (who also have homes on the cay) want to build a marina, boutique hotel and high-value housing estate.
Elbow Cay is five miles long and half a mile wide, and the historic settlement of Hope Town retains immense rustic appeal. An ever-widening patchwork of roads and upscale subdivisions radiates from the picturesque settlement harbour. And the island is home to high-flying lawyers, politicians, architects and corporate bigwigs. Abaconians refer to the place as "Hollywood".
There are some 400 permanent residents, together with perhaps 500 second home families who come and go, and an uncertain number of Haitians - probably in the hundreds. Most criticism of the development has centred around the size of the marina and the relatively high density of the housing. There are also fears of more competition in a tight market - more than a dozen restaurants and scores of homes and hotel rooms are already scrapping for business on the cay.
"The developers would have been welcomed if they had presented a reasonable plan of a small hotel of 20 rooms and perhaps 20 villas with dock space to match and suitable landscaping," said Hope Town patriarch Chester Thompson, himself a leading realtor. "A blind government has ignored the unanimous ruling of the local council and been outwitted by greedy developers."
The council wanted the government to acquire the property for the community to use as a park, ferry landing, and commercial port. But the government says the developers have addressed all practical issues. "The number of haitians living in the old lodge nearly equates to the projected number of full-time guests," one official told me. "The volume of garbage and impact on the environment is an issue that already exists. The marina footprint was reduced to the recommended size and scope, with flushing, discharge and sewerage systems being required."
According to Chief Councillor Jeremy Sweeting, the future of Hope Town should be in the hands of its residents, and approving this project against the community's wishes has "grave implications" for the future of local government. "The Local Government Act needs to be amended so that when we unanimously pass a resolution, supported by a petition with over 1,000 signatures, that resolution is final and can't be overturned or appealed."
But Environment Minister Earl Deveaux says everyone has the right to appeal. "The proposal was referred to the National Economic Council, reviewed by the full cabinet, and the government approved it in principle based on the new level of development and subject to a revised master plan and permitting requirements.
"It was one of those issues we had to look at totally objectively because there was no legitimate reason to refuse permission once the practical issues had been addressed. To do otherwise would send an entirely wrong signal to investors. If you don't want any development in Hope Town, you have to say that and deal with the consequences. But there was no reason to turn this project down."
The new Planning and Subdivision Act that comes into force on January 1 is a significant effort by the government to address these, and similar, issues throughout our archipelago. Proponents hope it will "bring order to development and prohibit bad environmental and planning practices that have endured for far too long."
The new law mandates land use plans for every island, based on a national land development policy that is yet to be promulgated. Future development must conform to the land use plan for each island, and the law will be implemented in phases, beginning with New Providence, and moving on to Abaco and Eleuthera, where the development pressures are greatest.
This is similar to what happens in England, where planning decisions are taken by a democratically accountable local authority and regarded as sound unless proven otherwise. The only grounds for appeal are abuse of process or failure to apply the approved local land use plan. This is the kind of transparency and good governance we should be aiming for in the Bahamas.