• Cruise line ‘upset’ govt favouring local entrepreneur
• PI lighthouse developer: ‘Door closed’ to cruise giant
• Still awaits ‘straight answer’ over crown land lease
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The attorney general previously admitted to the Bahamian developer battling for a Paradise Island crown land lease that Royal Caribbean was being “unreasonable” with its rival demands.
Carl Bethel QC, in a What’s App message sent to Toby Smith, Paradise Island Lighthouse & Beach Club Company’s principal, also informed the entrepreneur that the cruise giant was “apparently upset” that the government appeared to be favouring him as opposed to their proposed Royal Beach Club destination.
“They are unreasonable, and are apparently upset at our preference towards you,” Mr Bethel wrote to Mr Smith on March 1, 2020. “The one thing they can’t do is stop their guests patronising you. Or stop you bringing any other tourists to your property. You should take the deal. That’s my view. But it’s up to you.” He added that he was not directly involved in the Royal Caribbean negotiations.
Mr Smith, in messages that were exchanged at the time the government was trying to push him to accept an alternative crown land parcel to make way for the cruise line, responded by acknowledging that the attorney general was “in a very difficult position”.
He suggested that himself, Mr Bethel and Royal Caribbean meet to sort out the competing demands for crown land on western Paradise Island in the Colonial Beach area, voicing optimism - long since evaporated - that he and the cruise line would be able to agree a settlement with Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, acting as mediator.
Mr Bethel last night reacted with fury to the disclosure of the What’s App exchange, describing it as a “grotesque” breach of his privacy. “I have no comment on such a gross violation of privacy,” he blasted, while not denying the messages’ validity.
The “deal” referred to in the exchange was for Mr Smith to accept a different three-acre parcel of crown land to the one set out in the lease documents issued to him by the Department of Lands and Surveys in early January 2020, which he executed and returned two days later.
This was to accommodate Royal Caribbean, which wanted to incorporate the same three acres into its beach break destination for 3,500 passengers, but Mr Smith declined the offer on the basis that the alternative offered was an inferior parcel featuring largely rocky land that was unsuitable for his own $2m development.
The What’s App exchange emerged as Mr Smith intensifies his battle against both the Government and Royal Caribbean, which is being fought both in the courts and the public arena. The entrepreneur’s actions, which involve seeking Supreme Court confirmation he has a valid, executed lease, that is legally binding, have been given further impetus by the cruise line’s push for all necessary approvals.
Confirming the authenticity of the What’s App exchange with Mr Bethel, Mr Smith told Tribune Business: “I find it highly offensive that the attorney general of The Bahamas, who is supposed to be representing the interests of Bahamians, is showing preference and acting in the interests of Royal Caribbean, putting us as second class citizens in The Bahamas.
“He should be standing up with preference towards Bahamians. My door is now closed to Royal Caribbean. They don’t wish to come to the table? Well, there’s no longer the inclination....
“We’re already in a difficult position as a country and they’re going to take advantage of it. The Bahamas was in a difficult position before COVID-19. It was not like foreign direct investment was banging down the door to come to The Bahamas.”
Mr Smith has spent a decade trying to bring his project, which involves restoration of the lighthouse on Paradise Island’s western end, to fruition. He is seeking to lease two crown land parcels at Paradise Island’s western end, one of which involves two acres around the lighthouse, and the other three acres for the “beach break” element.
A January 7, 2020, letter from Richard Hardy, acting director of Lands and Surveys, to the Bahamian developer was headlined “approval for crown land lease” over the two tracts. Mr Smith previously told this newspaper he returned the lease, bearing his signature and other formalities, to the Government on January 9, 2020.
However, the Government has to-date failed to apply its signature and execute the lease, with officials telling the entrepreneur that the document is now “not worth the paper it is written on”.
Mr Smith previously voiced fears that his project was being “marginalised” and treated like “a second class citizen” to make way for Royal Caribbean’s Royal Beach Club, which is seeking the same three-acre parcel as part of a seven to ten-acre crown land tract it hopes to lease instead.
Documents filed as part of Royal Caribbean’s application for site plan approval, which was subjected to public consultation on April 28 this year, reveal that the cruise line was informed five days before Mr Hardy’s letter to Mr Smith that the Government had approved granting it crown land in the Colonial Beach area.
Candia Ferguson, the Bahamas Investment Authority’s (BIA) director, wrote to the cruise line’s attorney, Campbell Cleare at McKinney, Bancroft & Hughes, confirming that the Government had approved granting it Crown Land “in the vicinity of Colonial Beach”.
The January 2, 2020, letter noted that the exact area to be leased to Royal Caribbean was to be determined and “subject to availability”. And, some six to seven weeks later, Joshua Sears, the Prime Minister’s senior policy advisor, told Royal Caribbean on February 26, 2020, that the National Economic Council (NEC) - really the Cabinet - had approved the grant of ten acres of Crown Land.
This all took place at exactly the same time as Mr Smith was desperately trying to get the Government to execute his rival lease, and Mr Sears’ letter referenced “the existing interest of two other parties” in the same land although it did not name them.
Mr Smith yesterday told Tribune Business he is still trying to get “a straight answer” from Rochelle Newbold, the Department of Environmental Planning and Protection’s (DEPP) head, on whether Royal Caribbean has provided her agency with evidence that it has a fully executed Crown Land lease.
An April 1, 2021, memorandum from Mrs Newbold said the DEPP was still awaiting “the letter of approval of leases awarded to the developer by the Office of the Prime Minister”. Mr Smith added that her May 2 response to his questions on whether such a lease has been confirmed was inconclusive, as was Royal Caribbean’s vague reply in the virtual planning meeting.
Denying that the Government was applying “double standards” in how it treated Mr Smith’s and Royal Caribbean’s proposals, Mrs Newbold wrote: “Please note that Royal Caribbean does have ownership of various parcels at the western tip of Paradise Island. Royal Caribbean has provided the necessary documents to DEPP in that regard.
“Royal Caribbean was granted approval in principle by the National Economic Council (really the Cabinet) for the overall scope of the project subject to various conditions, one of which was the submission of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Royal Caribbean submitted an EIA that noted development of areas outside of what they presently own.
“Therefore, they were advised that evidence of their Crown Land approval was needed in order to complete the EIA review process. Subsequently, Department of Physical Planning was advised of the same. There is no double standard. Every project proponent has to provide evidence of land ownership whether it’s private land or a Crown land lease agreement granted by the Government.”
Royal Caribbean has steadily amassed around 13.5 acres on Paradise Island’s western end by buying out private landowners in the area, but it is also wants between five to ten acres of crown land in the Colonial Beach area to round out its project.
Russell Benford, Royal Caribbean’s vice-president of government relations for the Americas, hinted earlier this week that the cruise line may not proceed with its Paradise Island project if it was unable to secure the necessary crown land because it wants a minimum square footage per guest.
But Mr Smith, saying a Royal Caribbean representative had told the planning meeting it wanted a minimum 70 square feet per passenger, challenged the need for the crown land on this basis. With 43,360 feet square feet in an acre, and passenger numbers capped at a 3,500 maximum, he argued that based on 13.5 acres this worked out to around 168 square feet per person.
As a result, Mr Smith asserted that Royal Caribbean’s private landholdings will be sufficient to accommodate all its passengers. The cruise line is hoping to begin construction on its Royal Beach Club by July this year so that the facility can open to receive guests by January 2023.
It has repeatedly declined to engage with Mr Smith, instead pushing him to negotiate with the Government.