January 26, 2006
Today in a courtroom in Freeport, Bahamas, the fate of a small island community is being decided in a classic David-versus-Goliath contest. The underdog is the Save Guana Cay Reef Association, representing the 200-odd residents of Great Guana Cay, a narrow 5 1/2-mile long island in the Sea of Abaco. Their adversaries are the Bahamian government and the Discovery Land Company, a San Francisco based developer of luxury private recreational communities. At the centre of the issue is a 500 million dollar development proposed for the northwestern one-third of Great Guana Cay, on 585 acres of land that is now uninhabited beach, woodland, and swamp. No one is arguing that the project won't drastically change the character of the island: it's hard to imagine how 359 new homes, a 180-slip marina, and 18-hole golf course wouldn't have a seismic impact on a sleepy settlement that currently boasts a single grocery store, a liquor store, and two or three T-shirt shops. The controversy is whether the changes will be positive and who will or will not benefit from them.
We have a vested interest in the outcome of today's court session. The development is slated for Baker's Bay, our favourite anchorage in the Abacos. For the last dozen years, we and other cruisers have visited the bay and treated it as our own, naively ignoring the reality that seven miles of pristine waterfront property only ten miles from Marsh Harbour -- the third largest city in the Bahamas -- isn't going to go unnoticed for long. In fact, Baker's Bay has been targeted by outside development interests before. In the 1980's, a German developer constructed a short-lived cruiseship destination there, named it Treasure Island, and leased it to Premier Cruise Lines for its Disney cruises. For various reasons, including uncertain weather, the cruiseships abandoned the stop in 1993. Until Discovery came on the scene last year, the legacy of that earlier failed development was a dredged 30' deep channel, a dilapidated dock, some broken dolphin pens, and several overgrown timber structures on shore (see the description in our January 15, 2004 entry "Phantom Vacation").
When we visited Baker's Bay a couple of weeks ago, it was clear the place was undergoing a facelift. The casuarina pines (an invasive species originating in Australia) that had been crowding out the palm trees along the shore were gone -- reduced to a couple of huge heaps of chipped wood in the middle of the beach. A new dock had replaced the old one. Twice a day a ferry dropped off and picked up workers; on most of the days we were there, a sleek 74' Lyman Morse custom motor yacht also appeared on the scene, transporting prospective investors. Beached near the dock was a barge and large crane, sitting idle. Despite the sounds of machinery ashore, there wasn't much evidence of new buildings, except for a cluster of canvas-roofed beach houses at the northwest tip of the island. We later learned that these comprise a visitors' centre.
The most attractive feature of Baker's Bay (at least to us) is its white sand beach, which is now dotted with survey stakes. Shortly after we anchored, we took our dinghy ashore and went for a stroll along the beach, trying to ignore the crisscrossed tracks left by four-wheel drive vehicles. We headed towards the northwest end of the island; when we reached the dock, a young neatly dressed man suddenly appeared and courteously asked what we were doing.
"We're walking the beach," David courteously replied.
"I'm sorry but you can't go beyond this point; it's private," the young man explained politely.
"Don't worry," David responded politely. "We'll stay below the high water mark where it's public property."
The man hesitated. "Yes, I understand that, but it's still private and you can't go there."
We smiled and kept walking. He shrugged and looked unhappy. After another five minutes we decided to turn around and return to the dinghy. It didn't feel like the old days. Apparently, the visitors' centre isn't for visitors like us. When we passed the dock again, the young man smiled and waved. He looked relieved.
We sailed to Marsh Harbour a few days later and decided to find out more about the Discovery Land Company and its plans for Baker's Bay. Our interest was prompted by a morning announcement on the cruisers' VHF radio net of an upcoming fundraising event in support of a court suit against the development. Online, we learned that Discovery has several other developments in the works: Baker's Bay is its thirteenth project. Youthful chairman and CEO Mike Meldman completed his first private golf club community in Arizona in 1993. He's gone on to acquire properties throughout the mainland US, mostly in the west, and in Hawaii and Mexico. His projects follow a familiar formula: natural settings, large building lots, expensive infrastructure, and a high end recreation focus -- a private golf course, accompanied sometimes by a marina. The locals need not worry about shoddy construction; this guy's a class act.
In an interview in Executive Golfer, Meldman gushed, "At Baker's Bay, we have the magnificent beaches overlaid with our concept which will be a fabulous Tom Fazio golf course, a beach club, a spa, and a state-of-the-art marina that will be the epicenter of the community... Baker's Bay has so many wonderful attributes that will make it -- in my opinion -- the greatest place on earth."
Discovery has a sales office on the main waterfront street of Marsh Harbour, a few paces from the slip where its luxury yacht is docked. The receptionist ushered us into an elegantly furnished sitting room. There were sushi appetizers on a side board. She offered us drinks; we accepted some bottled water. Marketing manager Dan O'Callaghan appeared a few minutes later, casually dressed in a polo shirt and khakis. Mr. O'Callaghan outlined the proposed development for us. We asked him what the properties were going to go for.
"The building lots range in size from one-third to a little over two acres in size and will be priced from two to twelve million dollars," he said. He confirmed that the lots were intended for vacation homes, not year-round residences.
David recovered quickly from almost spilling his water and inquired what the target market was.
Mr. O'Callaghan explained, "The number one attraction of the development is the marina. Given its proximity, we feel that the Florida yachting crowd could be our biggest market, but we expect there will be interest all along the eastern seaboard, as well as elsewhere in the States." The former cruiseship channel fortuitously provides deep water access to Baker's Bay for boats that normally would have difficulty navigating shallow Bahamian waters; the proposed marina is designed to accommodate mega-yachts up to 250 feet in length.
Mr. O'Callaghan was vague about the upcoming court case. He stressed that his company had voluntarily halted major construction on the site at the end of November pending the outcome of the legal suit. He added, "We're confident we've gone through all the proper steps to do things in the right way."
We later contacted the Save Guana Cay Reef Association. Ironically, the Association's fight is as much with the Bahamian government as it is with the foreign developer. At this point, it appears to be a last ditch battle: the project has been approved and construction has started. The Association is arguing that the public wasn't consulted properly prior to an agreement being signed between the developer and the government and that the government's decision should be the subject of a judicial review. The opponents are particularly incensed by the commitment of 130 acres of crown land to the project. Half of the public land will be leased to the developer and become part of the marina complex. Most of the remaining 66 acres at the extreme southeast end of the property will be set aside as an environmental preserve area. Five acres are slated for use as a public beach and park.
The Association engaged two noted marine scientists each to review independently the environmental impact of the proposed development. The main concern is the coral reefs lying close to shore. Both reports questioned the conclusions of the developer's Environmental Impact Assessment, which has been accepted by the government. The Association's scientists felt the EIA had underestimated the risks posed by nutrient-rich runoff from the golf course, sediment from dredging activities, and pollution from the marina. One of the reviewers was quite blunt: "We are surprised that a team of marine scientists financially supported by the developer would claim that a golf course and dredge project will not harm... these diverse coral reefs ten meters away from the proposed development site."
Troy Albury operates a recreational scuba diving business on Great Guana and is one of the driving forces behind the Save Guana Cay Reef Association. On Tuesday, the Association held a fundraiser "under the buttonwood tree" in the Guana Cay settlement. Raffle tickets, homemade conch fritters, and T-shirts were on sale. Troy told us, "Fighting a case like this in the Supreme court against a billion dollar development is not cheap." We hope he sold a lot of T-shirts.
It's hard not to feel sympathetic towards Troy and the other Great Guana residents whose livelihoods depend directly on the health of the reefs surrounding their island, reefs they feel are threatened by the new development. They face a formidable foe; and the history of development approvals in the Bahamas is not encouraging. Certainly the cruiseship fantasy park that previously occupied Baker's Bay was no eco-friendly enterprise. And herein lies the dilemma: in packaging paradise for outside consumption, the very object of attraction is destroyed.
In a full page ad in the local weekly, The Abaconian, the Discovery Land Company cited the benefits of their proposed development: 151 local jobs, half a billion dollars in tax revenues over the next ten years, a billion dollars worth of direct and indirect goods and services generated over the same time period. The Supreme court hearing today is proof that Bahamians are divided on whether or not these economic benefits are worth the price of change at the scale envisioned.
If the development goes ahead, we'll have to strike Baker's Bay off our list of cruising destinations. We really can't see Little Gidding nestling up next to a 250 foot mega-yacht in the new marina. From our narrow perspective, the loss of Baker's Bay is a shame, but there are still plenty of unspoiled anchorages we can visit instead. Troy and his neighbours don't have that option. You can follow their fate at www.saveguanacayreef.com.