/ 30 September 2023

Durban residents oppose property development on floodplain

Slinging mud: A developer has proposed building a hotel and residences at Beachwood, to the dismay of residents, who say the area lies in a flood plain and they doubt the municipality’s ability to protect the area. Photo: Oceans Alive Conservation Trust

Durban North residents and conservationists are vowing to stop the development of a multimillion-rand hotel and residential housing on the site of the old Beachwood Country Club, the latest citizens to take on the eThekwini metro, which is approving construction plans despite multiple objections.

The residents — who have just experienced nine days without tap water in the suburb, allegedly after vandalism of infrastructure according to the municipality, in addition to an electricity outage unrelated to load-shedding — have vowed to fight the matter all the way to the high court if need be.

They argue that the city’s failing infrastructure affecting water, sanitation, roads and electricity cannot cater for a further 1 000 people that the development would bring to the suburb.

In addition, apart from the fact that it encroaches on an ecologically sensitive coastal mangrove forest, the residents have argued that the original developers of the suburb chose to grant a praedial servitude right against the property, meaning the 42-hectare plot may not be entirely developed for business, commercial or residential purposes.

The residents’ battle for the green recreational space which forms part of eThekwini’s environmentally sensitive Durban Metropolitan Open Space System (D’Moss) zone connecting Umgeni River to Virginia Bush mirrors that of residents of the diverse suburb of Woodstock in Cape Town, who are opposing the city’s plans to turn a historic bowling green into a housing development.

Almost 1 000 residents and conservationists have filed formal objections and about 3 000 people have signed a petition to halt the development of the proposed Beachwood Resort and Estate Development on Fairway Road, located on a wetland flood plain adjacent to environmentally critical mangroves that stretch down dunes to the beach.

The development of the site, located next to Virginia Airport, has been identified along with the latter among a list of R44.5 billion worth of future “catalytic projects” including Durban Film City and Centrum.

According to the final basic assessment report prepared for the developer, Beachwood Investments, the alternative one option development plan highlighted in the report “was seen as the most profitable option for this property”. 

This option includes the construction of an up to 280-bed hotel within 100m from the high water mark of the sea, a series of three-storey “drive up apartments” and six-storey units on the northern part of the site.

“The development is situated within D’Moss. There will be clearance of more than 300m2 of indigenous vegetation such as mimusops caf fra, ficus burtt-davyi and brachylaena discolor to accommodate the construction of fencing, ‘tourist window’, trim-track (a recreational walkway through the vegetation), three-storey drive up apartments” with a “7m access road … crossing wetland and forested area,” the report noted. 

Further housing units are also planned for the southern stretch of the site.

A developer has proposed building a hotel and residences at Beachwood, to the dismay of residents, who say the area lies in a flood plain and they doubt the municipality’s ability to protect the area. (Anthony Grote)

“The resort amenities will replace some of these indigenous vegetation. However, overall ecological goods and services will be enhanced; this layout proposes a reduced developable footprint (about 23% of the area will be developed), thereby achieving more green area and a less dense development, while still maintaining an acceptable amount of residential units.”

According to the report “all bulk services (water, electricity, sewage) are available within close proximity to the site and the development will be linked to existing municipal infrastructure. In terms of sewage, the proposed development is located within the Northern Waste Water Treatment Works (WWTW) catchment.”

It noted that the municipality’s water and sanitation department “has indicated that sufficient capacity exists in the existing gravity pipelines, rising mains and pump stations linking the proposed development to the WWTW”.

But when the city granted approval for the rezoning, creating a brand-new property zone called the Beachwood Coastal Estate Zone, residents in August appealed the decision on various grounds, arguing that the environmentally sensitive area needs to be preserved.

They noted that it is located on a flood plain, that water, sanitation, electricity and road infrastructure cannot cope, and that a praedial right has been registered over the property in favour of 16 roads in the suburb since 1950. 

The approval did call on developers to come up with a sewage solution as the treatment works cannot handle increased capacity.

The department of economic development, tourism and environmental affairs has also approved the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for phase one, the housing and hotel on the northern part of the site.

In its original formal objection to the development, the Fairway Residents Forum rejected the proposal.

“No one wants this development. This pristine, unparalleled site is a real asset to the area, and to the city. It is self-sustaining,” it said. “As ratepayers and residents of the area [we] are firm in the belief that this should not be parcelled up for maximum profit and lost to future generations. We request that the provincial and city authorities act on our behalf to ensure this land remains as open space.”

The appeal against the approved rezoning will be heard by eThekwini’s town planning appeals committee, but some are concerned the development will be rubber-stamped.

Resident Angela Wilson said she was concerned about the sewage issue, degradation of the environment — particularly the mangroves — as well as flooding, road traffic capacity and the loss of the open space.

“If they approve it then we have to take it to the high court and not only do we get it dismissed on the praedial servitude issue but on environmental and town-planning grounds and put a lid on this thing because we cannot have this space open to developers,” Wilson said.

However, she said, residents would not be opposed to the development of a world-class golf course and a boutique hotel as it would not impact the environment like housing units, which would also be susceptible to flooding.

“There are issues with the sewerage as the Northern Waste Water Treatment Works are spewing sewage into the coast and crushing tourism, and here is the municipality approving this development and in a flood plain which leads to the mangroves,” said Wilson.

“The city has said they can come up with their own sewage treatment plan as they are not planning to connect to the municipal structures now, but the EIA has been approved.”

The former chairperson of a local residents’ association, Vanessa Knight, said the matter would go to court if necessary.

“Once they (developers) have sold off the sites and are counting their cash it is the rest of us who are going to have to deal with the problems that arise,” Knight said.

“There is a very valid reason the area wasn’t developed in the first place and the reason is that it is in a flood plain. People who pay millions of rands for houses there will want them still to be around in the next 20 years. Has anybody bothered to go and look at the dunes and see how much sand is left? There is not even enough sand to hold back the elements … We are really worried about the flooding.”

Hugh Crichton was one of two residents who fought the city and Beachwood Investments  in the Durban high court regarding a proposal to rezone the property in 2020, which led to the court ruling that the city’s decision to subdivide, rezone and remove the servitude restriction be set aside. 

Crichton said this week that residents would take the matter back to court if necessary.

Ironically, the 16 roads that benefit from the praedial servitude are in fact owned by a single entity – eThekwini municipality – a fact Beachwood Investments had not realised.

Crichton said in order to remove the restrictive right on the title deed — the praedial servitude — the city had to consider factors including “its recreational mandate as contained in the Constitution” and its ability to deliver on this “should 42 hectares of recreational land be permanently lost after 75 years” and the impact on the environment and service delivery.

“The motivation for the removal [of the praedial servitude] is fatally flawed …So long as the title deed contains a praedial servitude that restricts the use of the property to a golf course and other recreational uses, no alternate use proposal may be entertained,” Crichton said.

South African Association for Marine Biological Research board member and Oceans Alive chief executive Colin Levin said researchers believed the entire golf course will be under the high water mark within 20 years.

He said a “proper” environmental impact assessment would have highlighted the hazards and damages of building on the site.

“Developers don’t care what happens in ten years’ time. They will walk away with the money and the person who bought it is going to sit with a problem. We have  enough space to develop inland so why take the last green space?

“And the airport (next door) is facing its own battle. It was a crucial hub for managing the situation after the floods, bringing in supplies and food, but it has the same development issues.”

eThekwini municipality spokesperson Gugu Sisilana declined to respond to questions.

“We have been advised that this matter is currently in court and therefore we cannot provide comment at this time,” Sisilana said.

Beachwood Investments representative Gavin Strydom said the developers had completed all the statutory applications for the development. He said the public was entitled to voice their objections and concerns as their input was “critical” to the developers to identify and address “any possible oversights”.

“Our vision … is to develop 219 homes and 245 hotel keys. We have signed [non-disclosure agreements] and can only make public the name of the successful hotel operator after the contract has been signed,” Strydom said.

He said the EIA and other approvals had been obtained but developers still had the “mammoth task” of applying for municipal plan approval.

Commenting on concerns regarding the city’s infrastructure capacity, he said: “Our development approach is spatially aligned to the municipality’s vision and it is environmentally aligned to the legislative framework. A sustainable, environmentally conscious development initiative is being advanced … that will result in the environment and neighbourhood being better off, post development.”

“Our design and masterplan have been carefully constructed to take into account the prevailing environmental sensitivities of the property, where some 77% of the land will remain undeveloped to encourage conservation, at a huge cost to the developer. This low construction footprint is thus considered a low-density development considering the land size of approximately 430 000m2,” he said.

“Currently, large amounts of the M4 stormwater peppered with oil, fuel and rubber deposits end up in the ecologically sensitive mangrove situated on the Beachwood property. We will be filtering this contaminated M4 stormwater using sand filter beds prior to it reaching the mangrove at our cost.”

He said the developers would relocate existing public parking and rehabilitate the sand dunes and forests it had damaged at their cost and relocate informal dwellers living in the dunes.

“We will also rehabilitate the damaged sand dunes and dune forests at our cost thus promoting environmental preservation and environmental longevity,” Strydom said.

“Preservation and protection of the mangroves, wetlands and dune forests have been foremost in our planning. We have had a transparent public participation process and we have addressed all specific concerns raised.”

Strydom said “various infrastructural upgrades, in particular to the existing road network, are incorporated into the design and feasibility of the project”.

“From an engineering perspective there has been a cautious approach to management of stormwater and related engineering infrastructure. We are spending millions of rand on new stormwater management which will overcome the flooding in places on the golf course.”

“Our current vision is to maintain a nine-hole golf course in Phase 2 of our development. This is still subject to environmental approval and municipal approval,” he said. 

Strydom said developers had not defended the earlier high court matter the first time since original development approvals had not met their requirements. However, he said if residents took “our current approval on a high court review we will certainly defend this matter on this occasion.”

However, he said the restrictive title deed conditions were “no longer applicable, relevant nor are they considered aligned to the strategic adopted vision of the municipality”.

“People often have the misperception of property developers being rough and ruthless,” Strydom said. “This is wholly incorrect. Property development is no different to any other business that operates to make a living. We are responsible developers who take absolute pride in our end product and seemingly our only disadvantage in this instance is that we are a solely owned black enterprise operating in a historically white suburb, no generalisation intended.”