Monday, February 25, 2008

Whatever happened to the Taumeasina Tourist Project

I keep forgetting to publish this article by Cherelle.....but here it goes...note: this was her last article before their office was burned to the ground the following day, far they hav'nt found the arsonist yet....

Whatever happened to the Taumeasina Tourist Project
Written by Cherelle Jackson
Friday, 24 August 2007

An investigation into the history and questionable facts of the Taumeasina Tourist Project which spans over 50 years.

Back in 2004, in the shadow of the Pacific Island Forum a small but significant gathering took place at Taumeasina, the more idyllic part of Moata’a.
It was the ground-breaking ceremony of Samoa's newest tourism development, then known as the Taumeasina Tourist Project. Under the shade of a white tent, the Prime Minister Hon. Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi along with Cabinet Ministers and CEOs joined Matautu Chiefs, foreign and local lawyers and investors in what was to be a monumental event to the tourism industry of Samoa.

After 33 years of negotiations, discussions, government agreements and finally signatures, the Taumeasina Tourist Project was given the thumbs up by the Government, Moataa village and the various investors and lawyers involved.

It was to be the beginning of a proposed luxury resort on the island just off Moataa, Taumeasina, funded by Investor and Chief Executive Officer of RSI Holdings Samoa Limited Mr. Gordon Taylor and implemented in part by Solicitor Trevor Stevenson.

Dubbed the closest thing to a Sheraton in Samoa, it was to be the most luxurious resort yet to be built on Upolu.

The development plans included 300 luxury hotel bungalows, condos, luxury homes, tennis courts, swimming pools and other luxury facilities for tourists.

But despite glossy blue prints and top of the line graphics, Tuilaepa was sceptical.

"Four Prime Ministers have passed, more than 70 Ministers of Parliaments and approval by Government and meetings including one with International funding agencies and yet this project never really happened," he said with his usual frown.

He continued to express his doubts and reservations about the project and concluded his speech by bestowing the blessings of the Government to Taylor and Mr. Trevor Stevenson, Solicitor for the project.

The Prime Minister highlighted the significance of the project coinciding with proposals for other similar projects in Vavau, Mulivai, Tafatafa, Mulifanua and Matatufu, back in 2004.

PUMA Legislation

The project was, according to Stevenson, to be the first project funded solely by foreign investment.

In his speech Taylor emphasized on the importance of the project to the tourism industry.

He spoke freely and frankly about the difficulties and challenges they faced before arriving at the official starting point of construction.

"If I had read or known about the PUMA legislation before I got involved in the project I would not have bothered," he said.

Mr. Gordon said the Act prohibited several aspects of the project and suggested quite blatantly that the Minister in charge "revisit the Act and make applicable changes" as it may hinder development in the country.

"This legislation was obviously made in Australia or New Zealand but it is not applicable to Samoa until maybe 20 years time," he said flatly.

Land Lease

Two years after that day, in the air conditioned office of Minister of Natural Resource and Environment Hon. Faumuina Liuga a lease was signed by Taylor to officially hand over the land for the planned resort on the Taumeasina Island and part of the surrounding area.

The long awaited land lease for the Taumeasina development project was finally signed and Taylor was admittedly happy.

“It has been five years and I am glad to finally see this document signed,” Taylor said.

He then added: “Now I have only about 300 days to build this place before the SPG begins.”

The Minister said the resort was to be a great opportunity for the people of Samoa.

“This sort of development will see Samoans being employed on all levels, as cleaners, waiters and right up to the management level,” he said.

He said as far as he can see the Resort can only do good for Samoa.

Taylor said the first phase of the project would take time and he hoped to start with 50 rooms.

“This is a high end resort, and eventually I would like to see 300 rooms around it,” he said.

The lease agreement was signed on the 29th of September 2006, almost a year ago today.

For Sale

Last week, Newsline received an email from one ‘Dave Main’ with the subject: ‘u wanna buy’ and in the email was a link to a website addressed for the sale of the Taumeasina Island Resort.

I visited the website on Monday the 6th 2007 and on the top of the page it displayed: “For Sale / or Joint Development.”

That same day, I called the Solicitor of the Development, Stevenson for reasons of the sale.

According to him the multimillion dollar development was only “partially” up for sale.

Asked about the website, he said he was “unaware” of it.

Stevenson said: “Gordon is a developer and he always wanted people with hotel experience to be part of the resort.”

Stevenson confirmed to Newsline that representatives from a Fijian group of hotels have shown interest in joint development.

He asserted: “The Government is aware of this and they will be visiting in the next few weeks.”

When Newsline revisited the website the next day, the words at the top of the page were: “For Joint Development” the “for sale” had been omitted.

However when scrolling down the website states: “If you just wish to purchase the resort or just the site and build your own resort this can be done, too. Or you might wish to purchase the whole island in which the current development includes condominiums and villas. You may wish to do your own thing.”

The site further points out: “The development enjoys tax-free incentives for 15 years.”

The website states: “A New Zealand based developer has completed building an island within a lagoon and is about to proceed building a holiday resort, condominiums, villas, a restaurant, reception facilities etc. There is also provision to build a second restaurant, night club and conference centre.”

It indicated that the number of rooms for the hotel is “totally negotiable but cannot be less that 55.”

“You may wish to build up to 250 units which should enjoy an occupancy rating percentage in the high 80s to low 90s,” the site states.

Attempts to reach Taylor for a comment were unsuccessful last week.


So why then is the multi million dollar development which has taken Taylor and others before him thirty years to secure and finally signed, is it now up for sale.

Since the groundbreaking ceremony back in 2004, neither Taylor nor Stevenson mentioned any plans for joint development or partial sale of the island or the development.

Taylor himself stated during the signing of the lease last year that he intended to complete his resort before the South Pacific Games.

The island still stands bare to date, SPG just a few weeks away.

The website does state: “The developer is suffering from a major health problem at the moment and has to travel to New Zealand for constant medical treatment, but will help or share in the development.”

PUMA and the elusive EIA

Since 2004, I tried, with several unsuccessful attempts to obtain a copy of the Preliminary Environmental Impact Assesment for the Taumeasina Project.

The EIA, generally agreed as a public document, was in this case, not so.

Part of the Planning for Urban Management Agency (PUMA) Act requires large scale developments to submit an EIA before commencement of construction and to hold public consultations to gauge the social impact of such a development.

Unfortunately neither the PEIA was public nor was a public consultation ever conducted for this development, that I knew of.

I sought the document from PUMA, unfortunately all my attempts were denied for reasons unbeknownst to me.

Visits to the office at Matautu also proved futile as I was referred from one person to the next, and in the end, PUMA confirmed they had the document but needed approval from the developer to release the EIA.

Efforts at the time to reach Taylor were unsuccessful.

A frustrated year later, I walked into the offices of Pacific Environment Consultants LTD [PECL] who conducted the EIA still seeking a copy of the elusive document.
I was told by a man in the office that although they conducted the EIA, they did not have the right to release the documents and that I must, once again, seek the approval of the Developer.
I managed to reach Taylor at his home at Taumeasina.“I have seen the EIA, unfortunately I do not have a copy with me but you are most welcome to obtain one,” Taylor said.

The verbal approval did not get me anywhere, but it was comforting to know that the Developer had nothing to hide and was transparent about the project.

During my search I managed to track down former ACEO of PUMA, Taulealeausumai Malua Lavasa to ask about the whereabouts of the document, and his opinion on the Environmental Impact of the development.

“I no longer work for the Government and I signed a contract not to speak about any matters while I was in that position until after two years of resigning, so call me back in two years,” he said bluntly.

I called current ACEO of PUMA, Jude Kolhase and he said: “That matter came into PUMA during the time of the former ACEO so I do not know much about it.”

The conversation ended with a promise by him to seek more information on the EIA and call me back.

He did not call back, and after a follow up phone call from my end, Kolhase maintained his position about “not knowing anything about it.”

The EIA was conducted in 2004, after exhausting all formal channels and all possible avenues of obtaining the document; I resorted to my own means and obtained it under the table from a very scared public servant in 2006, more than two years after my initial search.

So why, you may ask, was the document so well protected?

Was there anything detrimental in those precious pages that “they” did not want a Journalist to see?

Why was the Ministry afraid to release a document that was by legislation “a public document?”

Why was the Ministry protecting the document despite Taylor's obvious approval for it to be released?

So after months and months of tracking down the report it was finally obtained and although not provided by Taylor himself he did express willingness for it to be public.

PECL “inconclusive” PEIA

The report itself is 23 pages in total and comprehensive in format however after it was viewed by a local consultant he concluded that it was “inconclusive in content.
”Conducted by Pacific Environment Consultants LTD [PECL] in 2004, the preliminary report focused on identifying environmental impacts that could possibly be linked with the hotel development.
PECL admitted the lack of information to make proper conclusions and investigations into possible effects or impacts.
It states: “The preliminary environmental impact assessment for the hotel was not able to provide a completed analysis due to the absence of finalized details, plans on the construction and operation of the hotel.”
The report however was based on preliminary plans and discussions with Stevenson.
The document identified a high potential for water, land and air pollution during the construction phase as well as during operation. The general impact of construction and operation to the environment as pointed out is low however there are areas identified that need an environmental management plan [EMP] to complement whatever damage the development may cause.
PECL states in the end that a full scale EIA will not be required and that the preliminary report is sufficient to cover the possible impacts of the development on the environment despite not having the finalised plans for the hotel.
They did recommend that the EMP is integrated into the final construction plans.
But that was not the whole story.
Coastal Hazard Zone
Newsline discovered that the Taumeasina tourist development island and surrounding area has been proven to be a Coastal Hazard Zone.
During Cyclones Ofa and Val, the whole island was under 1.5 meters of water, yet the highest point on the island is 2meters above sea level.According to a local environmentalist and researcher who did not want to be named for professional reasons the site of the development would be a risk to human life and property in the event of flooding as the area is vulnerable to storm and wave surges.“Flooding in this area would reach a 100 meters inland,” he said.
The Preliminary Environmental Impact Assessment [PEIA] for the Development also refers to the hazard zone stating: “Coastal Hazards Map of Samoa as shown on Maps 2 identifies that current development site as being both a coastal erosion and flood hazard area.”The PEIA recognised that prior research and survey identified the Coastal Senility Index of the area as 31, which is considered very high and prone to “storm wave run-up of between to 2.26 to 3 meters above sea level.” “I find it hard to believe that someone would want to put so much money into an area that poses so much risk and could wash away in the next cyclone,” the environmentalist said.
According to him Samoa is due for another major cyclone as it has been more than 10 years since Ofa and Val.
“If that island was underwater during both cyclones then it is obvious that the next big storm would completely drown it as well,” he said.
Elevating the island by 3 meters above sea level would be the best solution according to the environmentalist; however he recognized that would probably defeat the purpose of the island for tourists.“That is the only way they can avoid the flooding, is by elevating that island beyond the recorded water-mark in recent floods,” he said.
Asked if he was aware of this fact Taylor said yes.“I am aware that the whole area is under coastal hazard zone and I am aware of the risk of this location,” he said.
Gordon said the island is high enough to avoid any flooding.“We have raised the island by 18ft on one corner and 12 ft on the other side.”He said the amount the island has been raised was made to withstand the last two cyclones.“We know that it has been 10 years since the last cyclone, but unless we build a mountain which we do not want to do, we are confident that the strength of our buildings can withstand floods,” Gordon said.
The Environmentalist however told Newsline that the risk to human life and damage to property is a big concern and the fact that there are no recommendations in the PEIA to prevent these from happening is surprising.According to him, only time will tell how the island will deal with flooding. Where to nextThe island has been flattened and a causeway was built to access it, however the height of the island above sea level from the shore is not more than two meters.Plans to complete the development before the SPG have certainly not come to fruition, yet it is now up for ‘joint development’ even though the developers never made this fact known.What will become of Taumeasina and the facts surrounding the recent progress in this case, a follow up will be published in the next Sunday Newsline.