By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Opponents of a controversial Harbour Island marina project have vowed "to continue to fight" after the local council granted it site plan approval late last week.
Michael Wiener, the developer behind the multi-million dollar Briland Residences and Marina project, said in a statement that he aimed to "restart our development as quickly as possible" following the approvals granted by the Harbour Island District Council.
Paying tribute to the support this decision had received from "scores of Brilanders" during last week's Town Hall meeting where the planning application was discussed, Mr Wiener promised an unspecified number of job and entrepreneurial opportunities for Bahamians while also lay down a challenge to his principal opponent.
Pledging to commit $500,000 to supporting Harbour Island "institutions" over the next five years, he called on fellow Briland hotelier, Ben Simmons, and Briland Island Responsible Development (BIRD) to match his contributions.
"My family and I are thrilled that the Harbour Island Council has approved our site plan for the Briland Residences and Marina," Mr Wiener said. "This decision was supported by scores of Brilanders who came out at the Town Hall meeting last week to voice their support for the development, and from the bottom of our hearts we want to thank each and every one of them.
"We look forward to restarting our development as quickly as possible so that we can fulfill our mandate to providing employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for local residents of Harbour Island."
The developer and his 4M Harbour Island Ltd vehicle said their $500,000 pledge, which will be split into $100,000 per annum over a five-year period, came in response to concerns voiced by Harbour Island second homeowners during Thursday night's meeting.
Challenging BIRD and Mr Simmons to match this "dollar for dollar" with a grant of their own, on the basis of "bringing the community together", Mr Wiener added: "It is our hope that this combined community funding will go a long way to improving and enhancing this wonderful island that we all love, whether it is through scholarships, community programmes or small-business capital funding."
Mr Simmons could not be reached for comment, but a BIRD spokesperson yesterday promised that its battle against the development was far from over despite Mr Wiener's latest site plan approval success.
This particular permit was the subject of a recent Supreme Court legal battle where all parties - Mr Wiener, BIRD/Mr Simmons and the Government - all agreed that the initial site plan approval should be quashed because it had been wrongly granted by the Government's Town Planning Committee instead of the Harbour Island District Council.
That has now seemingly been rectified by Thursday's Town Hall meeting, and the Council's subsequent decision, with Mr Wiener viewing it as the go-ahead to press forward with all the construction approvals and other permits the project requires.
However, the BIRD spokesperson yesterday expressed concerns over the site plan approval process. They argued that public information issued prior to Thursday's meeting was extremely vague, with few details provided and Harbour Island residents informed it had been called merely to discuss "an application for preliminary approval" that had been submitted by 4M Harbour Island Ltd.
Suggesting that the site plan application was approved with remarkable speed, within just 24 hours of the Town Hall meeting, the BIRD spokesperson argued that responses to questions posed by their attorney, Gail Lockhart-Charles, also received incomplete answers.
This, though, was denied by a source close to the developer, who said 4M Harbour Island Ltd's attorney, ex-financial services minister, Ryan Pinder, "answered each and every" of the eight to nine questions that Mrs Lockhart-Charles posed.
Referring to the challenge Mr Wiener has posed to BIRD, they said: "He'll set up a fund and is asking Ben and them to match. If they really care about the island, they will put their money where their mouth is and show they care about the people rather than the competition."
BIRD and Mr Simmons have frequently faced charges from Mr Wiener and his supporters that their opposition is based on the latter's fears about the competitive threat the Briland Residences and Marina project poses to his own Harbour Island hotel interests, rather than concern about the environmental and other potential impacts on the renowned tourist destination.
Several previous expansions by Harbour Island resort properties have also run into opposition from their rivals, and it has been difficult separating genuine concerns from suspicions that such protests are motivated by competition concerns.
The BIRD spokesperson, though, rejected the allegations that competition was the primary reason for its opposition to Mr Wiener's development. They told Tribune Business: "We're going to continue to fight this, and there's enough wrong with how this was dealt with that they're still going to have some difficulty.
"This was a divisive meeting. If they're giving the impression there's overwhelming approval that isn't the case. There were scores of Brilanders not for that position. They're trying to bump it up for something else. This is a PR mechanism to try to turn the tide with this project."
Questioning how the Briland Residences and Marina site plan approval could be granted "within 24 hours" of the Town Hall meeting, the spokesperson said Harbour Island residents had not been properly informed of its purpose.
"We did not know it was for site plan approval," they said. 'We went into the local administrator's office to ask what application had been put forward, and what we were looking at. They said it was a consultation meeting; presumably consultation with us, and there would be remarks and comments shared with us."
A public notice advertising the meeting, which has been obtained by Tribune Business, makes no mention of the "site plan approval" and how quickly this would be granted following the meeting's end.
The notice, signed by chief councillor Terrance Davis, said: "The public is hereby notified that an application for preliminary approval on behalf of 4M Harbour Island Ltd is presently being reviewed by the Harbour Island District Council.
"The applicant proposes to redevelop and expand the Harbour Island Marina & Resort. The proposed development includes an expanded marina, cottages, a small marina village, a boutique hotel and residences, back-of-the-house facilities and a residential subdivision on 27 acres of land."
The meeting was "to discuss and address planning issues" related to the project, with persons invited to review the plans and provide comments before it was held. Comments were to be submitted to the Family Island administrator within 21 days of the notice's publication, a deadline that appears to have been made redundant through the approval's granting.
"The plans that were on display were complete departures from all the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs)," the BIRD spokesperson said, "and we're going to write a letter to the BEST Commission about it."