Paynter’s Hill is home to 17 of the last 19 Yellowwood trees in Bermuda as well as an abundance of bird and plant life. *Photo by Kageak Smith
Paynter’s Hill is home to 17 of the last 19 Yellowwood trees in Bermuda as well as an abundance of bird and plant life. *Photo by Kageak Smith
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WEDNESDAY, FEB. 9: Some of Bermuda’s last remaining open space could be developed in a bid to ensure the long-term future of one of the island’s luxury hotels.

A Special Development Order — bypassing restrictions on building on green space — is being planned for the Tucker’s Point resort.

Government and hotel bosses believe the move will secure the long-term financial viability of the resort — potentially safeguarding hundreds of Bermudian jobs. But will it pay off? And is it too big a price to pay?

Here, James Whittaker summarizes the key-points in the debate…

What’s the plan for Tucker’s Point?

The resort wants to build an additional 78 residencies and 70 hotel rooms on its 240-acre site overlooking Castle Harbour.

The resort operates a mix of fractional units (where tourists ‘buy’ a share of a property for six weeks of the year), homes for sale (starting at $3.2m according to the Tucker’s Point website) as well as the hotel, spa and golf club.

Hotel bosses have admitted the expansion is ‘critical to the financial viability’ of the hotel and will help repay a bank loan, reportedly in the region of $85million.

The theory is that the investment in real estate will provide the capital to keep the resort financially viable until the economy picks up.

So what’s the problem?

The land earmarked for the development includes pristine hills and endangered woodland on top of a network of ancient underground caves. Allowing large swathes of green space to be used for property development is against the sustainability principles enshrined in Bermuda’s planning law.

The Planning Development Applications Board does not have the authority to allow such a large development on open space.

Where does the Special Development Order come in?

A Special Development Order can be used to circumvent those statutes if Government deems it a ‘national priority’.

Environment Minister Walter Roban said they were an important tool to “respond to strategic, national issues and to the development needs of the day”.

He said the future of Tucker’s Point was important to Bermuda’s tourism future and required an SDO.

So has the SDO been granted?

The SDO has been granted, in principle. But under new transparency regulations it will be debated in the House of Assembly on Friday and will still go before the Department of Planning before final approval is granted.

It is unlikely that parliamentarians will vote against the move.

So have the environmental concerns gone out the window?

Government says it has attached a series of conditions to the SDO, which “balance the economic needs of hotel development with the environmental needs of Bermuda”.

Conditions include protection of native and endemic trees as well as surveys of the caves.

Ed Trippe, president of Tucker’s Point, said the resort had been given two previous SDOs and had a good track record of sensitive development:

“Our record in the past has been exemplary. We have worked with cave infrastructures, we have worked with woodland reserves and we have gained respect with the environment and people have watched us and said you have done a good job,” he said at Friday’s press conference.

Has this satisfied critics?

No. The Bermuda National Trust says it is “extremely shocked” by the news.

It has condemned the decision to grant an SDO, saying the land is home to “critically endangered flora” such as the Yellowwood tree and the Wild Bermuda Pepper.

The Bermuda Audubon Society is also concerned, pointing out the area is home to a wide variety of seabirds. Environmental group BEST also opposes the plan.

So is it a case of trees versus jobs?

The resort management has not said outright that it would have had to close or cut jobs if it hadn’t got the SDO. But the implication that this was a ‘national priority’ and Mr Trippe’s remarks that the development was ‘critical’ to the financial viability of the resort, suggest the situation was dicey.

With Newstead Belmont Hills going into receivership early this year, the success of Tucker’s Point was seen as all the more crucial to the tourism industry.

The resort employs around 300 people and its future success is clearly tied to those jobs.

The National Trust has argued, however, that the economic value of open space has been underplayed in this debate.

“We need to recognise the economic value of our precious remaining open spaces which are the very amenities that draw visitors to our unique island,” said director Jennifer Gray.

If the resort is struggling, how does building more rooms and properties help?

The SDO does not mean an immediate expansion of Tucker’s Point. It is a ‘phased development’ beginning with 19 new residential homes on Glebe Road, Paynter’s Hill and Paynter’s Road.

Residential units are commonly used by resorts to help finance their hotels, Mr. Trippe was reported to have said at Friday’s press conference.

The additional development — 70 rooms and 57 townhouses —  is pending an upturn in the economy and would help the hotel increase the usage of its facilities — giving it a more viable tourists/amenities ratio.

The SDO was seen as crucial in that it gives the hotel the scope for future development — something that provided its creditors with the confidence to continue to back it.

Does that make financial sense?

Not everyone agrees that the deal makes sense. Allan Marshall, the UBP’s candidate for the area where the development is scheduled to take place, has been among the most vocal critics.

He said Government’s decision essentially helped protect HSBC from the consequences of a bad investment.

“The idea of issuing an SDO to Tucker’s Point to expand development smacks of contradiction, because their present development has not yet been profitable.”

Crucially, though, for the immediate future of the hotel, HSBC and management company Rosewood believe the SDO will be good for the future of the hotel.

HSBC said the order gave it confidence that Tucker’s Point could be a success and Rosewood — the luxury hotel operator — made its decision to come on board conditional on the development order.

So what does that mean?

Basically Rosewood — noted as a successful luxury resort operator — and the bank believe that Tucker’s Point will be more successful financially if it is allowed to develop.

Brian Young, manager of Tucker’s Point hotel, said the deal with Rosewood – finalized last week after an initial agreement last October — gave the hotel an improved international standing and represented a vote of confidence from a name brand.

So what if the tourists don’t come back?

The operators are confident that the demand for luxury homes, hotel rooms and timeshares in Bermuda is already starting to rebound and will continue to do so.

But critics have questioned that wisdom and suggest that if the industry does not pick up, large swathes of Bermuda’s last remaining open space will have been sacrificed for no long-term gain.

Others suggest that if the deal does not work it will be the death knell for a host of other hotel developments in Bermuda.