~ Emotions run high ~
SIMPSON BAY--A public hearing regarding the Preliminary Draft Development Plan (PDDP) for Simpson Bay took place last night. The hearing, a legal necessity before plans are implemented, was the third in a series of community consultations about the development plans for the Simpson Bay area.
Some 100 seats had been arranged in Allen Halley Community Centre. All seats were taken, as well as any space where people could stand. The meeting was so well attended the crowd spilled over to the outside areas, with people looking in through the open windows.
An introduction by Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure VROMI Acting Secretary-General Louis Brown made it clear that after this framework was presented, which he specifically stated was not an action plan, members of the public have 30 days to submit officially their concerns, which will be looked at by an independent committee that then will make a recommendation to Parliament. Brown reiterated the fact that the framework was being made in consultation with the public.
The presentation was given by project manager Thijs Sommers with an opportunity for the public to make remarks and ask questions afterwards.
The main positive in the presentation was the fact that the expansion of the airport has been reduced significantly as a result of a change in aviation regulations. As a result of this change, Princess Juliana international Airport SXM no longer will need to widen its runway or the obstacle-free zone. This means that the only expansion of the airport now is being planned on the Northern side.
Simpson Bay Lagoon will be affected significantly with two stages of land reclamation, one of which has started already. The first stage, to the Northeast of the airport, is to facilitate a new taxiway and parking spaces for aircraft.
Airport Boulevard will be subject to a zoning design allowing for improvements such as left-turn lanes, filter lanes, sidewalks and bicycle lanes. Space has been reserved for a connection between Welfare Road and Orange Grove, although this is not within the short-term planning.
Land has been designated for recreation, including resorts, and for solitary hotels and guesthouses. A recreational pier at the former BBW location is in the planning, as well as a possible mooring for mega-yachts and small cruise ships, plus a new boardwalk East of Airport Boulevard near the lagoon.
Interesting was that a map was shown of all the marinas. However, La Palapa Marina no longer was shown on the map and appeared to have been replaced by the boardwalk. This was duly remarked on by many worried people, but Brown stated that the marina would remain.
Zones were allocated for designation of different levels of commercial activities and for residential areas. The priority with regard to residential areas will be given to Simpson Bay Village and Beacon Hill, where certain height and building restrictions will be put in place to maintain the areas' atmosphere.
Mullet Pond has been designated as a protected area, as it is of high ecological value as a nursery for fish, a sea habitat and mangroves.
A second protected area is Little Key and its surroundings, with Big Key being left out of the presentation as it officially belongs to French St. Martin. No marina development or filling will be allowed around the protected areas.
Space has been reserved for two small-scale water treatment facilities, to improve the worst sanitation issues in the short term. Protection also has been designated for beaches, as nesting areas of sea turtles.
The authentic atmosphere in Simpson Bay Village will continue to be valued with the protection of monuments and a separate zoning plan to protect historical street patterns. As an historic fishing village, archaeological value is to be expected.
It was made clear that building and civil work permits that are already in place must be complied with. The development plan is currently in a phase of preparation; therefore, any new permits applied for must meet the new criteria. Old agreements and regulations for structures already in place will be maintained, however.
After the initial presentation there was time for questions. People had come prepared. The Simpson Bay Community Council was led by Yvette Harley and supported by Sharon Cannegieter of Cay Bay Community Council, all dressed in T-shirts with "Respect the people of Simpson Bay" printed on the front.
Many questions were asked, but not many answers were given. It seemed that the more challenging the question, the less clear were the answers given by Brown and by Minister of VROMI Maurice Lake.
For instance, a woman asked why more marinas needed to be built and whether the current marinas were insufficient. Brown replied that existing marinas and water rights would be incorporated in the plans.
Other questions asked were whether the economic value of having a lagoon could be sacrificed for the airport. It was pointed out that it is not necessary to fill the lagoon to keep the airport as a level one airport.
A woman pointed out that Simpson Bay's beaches are amongst the most beautiful on the island and the building of a pier would greatly affect the ecology of the beaches, adding that the island does not need a small cruise ship pier.
The first round of questions, directed to Brown, were met with long but unclear answers that did not tend to answer the questions asked. This greatly upset Yvette Harley, who had the audience on her side with a short speech.
"Too long we have not been heard. Tonight, we are going to be heard. This is going to affect all of Simpson Bay. It's going to affect all of us. What's in this for us? We live here, we are dealing with it, the filth, the pollution," she declared.
Minister Lake gave a lengthy response that best could be summarised as saying that the concerns mentioned would be taken into consideration. Lake described the actions he had taken when he first became minister. He said he had commissioned an environmental study of the lagoon and repeatedly mentioned that he had a habit of going back to the community.
He further said he could grant approval for the Harbour to dredge the lagoon before a permit was given and that approval had been given based on an environmental impact response.
Harley brought up the fact that the airport had first said in a presentation that 30 acres would be filled and later changed this to 15. A question about why a specific area needed filling up also was not answered clearly.
Lake tried to imply that all stakeholders, including environmental organisations, had consented to the plans to fill in the lagoon. This resulted in an angry response from Rueben Thompson, representing St. Maarten Pride Foundation and Environmental Protection in the Caribbean (EPIC).
A press release issued by Pride after the meeting ended stated that during a meeting of EPIC, Nature Foundation and Pride Foundation with representatives of the airport and Lievense Consulting Engineers N.V. in May 2012 the environmental organisations had informed the project's principals that they would never under any circumstances support plans for the filling-in of any portion of Simpson Bay Lagoon.
The foundations acknowledged that the project probably would continue despite their objections and therefore expressed the need for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), requesting a guarantee that the recommendations of this study would be adhered to. They furthermore asked to be kept informed of future plans and to be given the results of the EIA. They never were informed of the plans to start filling in the lagoon and never approved of the activities.
Minister Lake commented at some point that the airport "has to do a better job at presenting its plans to people."
Another tense point in the session occurred when a local man pointed out, "We are standing on filled land as we speak" and that Simpson Bay is heading for a change. He said he saw a lot of "young energy" and hoped this would be put in the right direction, rather than being used for complaining. He pointed out that more ships would improve property value and that "we're going to get this pier whether we like it or not."
His efforts were met by loud booing from the crowd and a fight nearly followed between the speaker and another man in the audience, after the speaker continued to remark about "unemployed people who do nothing but moan." Both parties were calmed by others and were asked to step outside. The man who had been upset was allowed back in after calming down and proceeded to give a valuable contribution with his questions.
A young local woman pointed out that tourists do not come to St. Maarten to find a mini-Miami. She said they would prefer to find culture and authenticity. She also pointed out that the environment should be valued and protected more.
She then focused on the subject of contracts and permits already given out to complete works. She asked Minister Lake whether he could give his word that no more contracts and permits would be given out. He declined to give a straight answer, instead going back to a remark he made many times during the evening: "My style is to consult with local people."
However, he confirmed that, aside from the dredging by the harbour and the partial filling of the lagoon, no other contracts had been given out.
Sharon Cannegieter of the Cay Bay Community Council, remarked that people were asking too many random questions. She recommended that people do their homework, then cooperate with their community councils to send in a comprehensive, well-thought-out list of questions. She also posed a direct question to Member of Parliament Hyacinth Richardson, who was also present, asking him to listen to the plight of the community.
Richardson answered that he was standing with the community in their fight, but that many things were decided "under the table" without ever making it to Parliament. He mentioned the Simpson Bay causeway as an example. He stated that the King and Queen had asked him to protect the lagoon and said he intended to do just that.
One of the last questions asked was whether it was possible for the plans still to be dropped should Parliament oppose them based on the report by the independent committee. The answer was given by Brown, who said Parliament could recommend that the plans be altered or dropped.
The public has 30 days to officially submit their views on the plans.