By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government has been urged to reject the proposed $580m South Abaco mixed-use resort project due to “tremendous concerns” over its “financial viability and environmental impact”.
Multiple Bahamian and international environmental groups, in an April 15 letter to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues, warned that the sheer scale of the proposed development “would result in irreversible negative socioeconomic impacts on local communities as well as dire environmental consequences for many species living in the area”.
The letter, which has been obtained by Tribune Business, also calls on the Government to require the developer, Tyrsoz Family Holdings, to post a “minimum” performance bond equal to 125 percent of its proposed $580m total investment - translating into a sum worth $725m.
Many commercial executives, while recognising the need for a performance bond, would likely argue that the suggested amount is excessive. But the groups justified their plea to Dr Hubert Minnis by pointing out the numerous incomplete or abandoned investment projects littering The Bahamas that have left “environmental damage” and none of the promised economic benefits in their wake.
The letter is signed by organisations including Abaco-based Friends of the Environment; The Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation; local and international representatives for the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust; the Perry Institute of Marine Science; the Audobon Society (bird conservation); and the Fisheries Conservation Foundation.
Among the other signatories is Keith Bishop, principal of Islands by Design, who picks up much of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Environmental Management Plan (EMP) work associated with major Bahamas-based foreign direct investment (FDI) projects - including the $5.5bn Oban Energies development. The Abaco Fly Fishing Guide Association also signed to voice its opposition.
All signatories said they attended an April 9 meeting with the $580m project’s principal, Ronnie Ben-Zur, who is chief executive of French Quarter Holdings, a hospitality development company that specialises in acquiring distressed and undervalued resort properties it then renovates, turns around and prepares for onward sale.
Much of his presentation, and a four-page booklet produced by Tyrsoz Family Holdings, was devoted to reassuring Bahamians of the company’s environmental sensitivities. It is promising to create “a world-class, environmentally-sustainable luxury island retreat with local appeal via the participating community while, importantly, maintaining South Abaco’s natural charm”.
“Tyrsoz Family Holdings Ltd’s financial advisor and real estate developer, Ra’anan ‘Ronnie’ Ben-Zur, is proposing a low-density, ultra-luxury hotel, residential and marina development for the secluded undeveloped coastal region of South Abaco, Bahamas,” the booklet said.
“Based on sound economical footing, yet designed with great care and responsibility to the environment and original nature of the area, it is intended to provide significant ongoing and expanding employment opportunities for the community and important infrastructure improvements for the benefit of residents and visitors alike.”
The April 15 letter, though, shows those in attendance are far from convinced this will be the reality. “We are writing to convey our grave concerns and strong opposition to the proposed large-scale development in South Abaco,” the eight organisations collectively wrote.
With Tyrsoz Family Holdings proposing “a huge project in an ecologically sensitive area that is recognised internationally for its significance”, they added: “While we understand the need for sustainable job opportunities for Bahamians in South Abaco, we believe that a development of this scale would result in irreversible negative socioeconomic impacts on local communities as well as dire environmental consequences for many species living in the area.....
“In conclusion, Mr Ben-Zur failed to address many critically important issues associated with this proposed development, giving us tremendous concerns for both its financial viability and its environmental impact. We strongly urge the Government to decline this project proposal for development.”
While acknowledging that Mr Ben-Zur had pledged his commitment to both the south Abaco community and an environmentally-friendly development, and a project “based on sound economic footing”, the eight groups said they “resoundingly challenge” each of these promises.
They added that his plans for a two-site, “ultra high-end residential and hotel development” spread across 1,086 acres and two sites was fraught with environmental complications and challenges. The first site, Lantern Head, is adjacent to the Abaco National Park, while South West Point was “in the middle of the proposed expansion of the Cross Harbour National Park”.
The letter, which described Tyrsoz Family Holdings as a Gibraltar-registered company owned by Mr Ben-Zur’s six children, said the current project proposal involved “paving a 30-foot wide road through nine miles of the Abaco National Park (ANP) to Hole in the Wall”.
It added: “The development will include a 50-room, six-star hotel, 75 residential lots in a gated community and an 18-hole golf course at Lantern Head as well as two hotels with 175 rooms plus 80 residential lots, a 136-slip mega-yacht marina, a marina village with retail stores, and a water park at South West Point. In total the two sites will have close to 400 residential units catering to the ultra-wealthy.”
Tyrsoz Family Holdings has already promised “to donate back to the Government” some of the land it is aiming to acquire. Among its other community-focused pledges are financial support for the Bahamas National Trust’s (BNT) National Park masterplan; a nature preserve; restoration of the “iconic” Hole in the Wall Lighthouse under BNT supervision; and access to the beaches on the southern shore.
But the eight environmental groups expressed concern that Mr Ben-Zur did not provide details of the project’s waste water and solid waste management plans despite “his intent to develop a self-sustaining resort”, or the amount of water, power and associated infrastructure it will ultimately require.
While conceding that it was impossible to fully assess the environmental impact without the EIA and access to other details, they nevertheless added: “There is no shortage of published information to indicate that a development of this scale in such an ecologically sensitive area will create irreversible damage to Abaco’s natural resources and the industries that rely on them.”
In particular, they expressed concern about the impact the project’s location and road paving will have on two endangered bird species - the Abaco Parrot and Kirtland’s Warbler. The latter’s habitat is “right in the path” of the $580m project’s location.
Fears were also voiced by the eight groups about the marina’s impact on the $50m per annum bonefishing industry that provides a vital economic boost to islands on the Little Bahama Bank. “One of the largest spawning aggregations in The Bahamas, and the most important site for the Abaco and Grand Bahama fishery, is located off Cross Harbour, with the actual spawning site occurring nearer to South West Point,” they wrote.
“This spawning aggregation is undoubtedly responsible for producing not only the vast majority of bonefish that make up the fishery in The Marls and other areas of Abaco, but also a significant portion of the fishery in Grand Bahama.
“Because bonefish follow the shoreline very closely during their spawning migrations, the alteration of the shoreline area at the site of the marina would impede the migration of fish from East Abaco to the Cross Harbour aggregation site, causing most if not all of those fish to avoid that site, thereby, failing to spawn.”
The letter added that Mr Ben-Zur’s plan to limit vehicle traffic through the Abaco National Park through landing all construction and operational supplies by sea, via freight ships and barges, has sparked fears of pollution and water quality degradation that could further undermine coral reefs and marine life.
Besides expression concerns for commercial fishing, and whales and dolphins, the project’s opponents added: “One of Abaco’s four aquifers lies between Crossing Rocks and Hole in the Wall. It is 20-50 feet thick and can produce yields greater than 40 gallons per minute.
“The excavation of approximately 200 acres for the marina at South West Point, dug to a minimum depth of 20-plus feet, could cause significant salt water intrusion and destruction of this critical fresh water resource.” The planned golf course’s irrigation needs could also increase demand for this fresh water.
The eight groups argued that income and opportunities for local fishermen, bonefish guides and lodges, and bird guides could all be negatively impacted by the Tyrsoz Family Holdings project as presented to them.
“In his presentation, Mr Ben-Zur did not address plans for the ruins of well-documented historical settlements at Lantern Head and Alexandria, and the master plan he presented did not include any concessions for their protection,” they wrote.
“Damage from a D8 bulldozer to the ruins of the pineapple and sisal plantation at Lantern Head has already occurred during the surveying of this parcel...... The planned marina complex completely engulfs the Alexandria settlement without any proposed buffer to ensure its protection.”
Turning to their economic concerns, the eight groups said Mr Ben-Zur did not reveal his financing sources for the $580m project other than to say his family would contribute some of the funding. They added that he admitted “this project would be his biggest to date, his first marina and his first development outside the US”.
“We are, sadly, all too familiar with other projects on Abaco and elsewhere in The Bahamas where projects have been started but never completed or have been abandoned, leaving environmental damage without providing the promised economic benefits to the communities involved,” they told the Prime Minister and several Cabinet ministers.
“Without complete and demonstrable evidence that he [Mr Ben-Zur] has indeed secured the necessary capital, it should be assumed that it does not exist. Before conducting any further discussion on this project, the Bahamas Investment Authority (BIA) should secure performance bonds for an amount equal to at least 125 percent of the $580m estimated cost of the project, i.e, a minimum bond of $725m.”
Mr Ben-Zur’s career has largely involved transforming existing resort properties, such as the Radisson at JFK Airport and multiple hotels in Atlanta and Florida, rather than the “greenfield” property earmarked for the Tyrsoz Family Holdings project.
The developer is pledging to create 600 full-time jobs, and inject $2bn into south Abaco’s struggling economy, during the development’s first 10 years in operation. Yet the eight groups argued that the proposed project “does not align” with any of the climate change, biodiversity and sustainable development treaties that The Bahamas has signed up to.