Spoiler alert: The new Environmental Impact Report for the high-profile Leonardo DiCaprio resort on Blackadore Caye contains no smoking gun.
At least, none that I could find as I perused the 430-page report recently at the San Pedro Public Library.
A “public consultation” on the findings regarding the proposed high-end resort will be held Jan. 14 starting at 6:30 p.m. at the Lion’s Den on Front Street in San Pedro.
The report, meanwhile is available for reading at the town library, the Ho Chan Marine Reserve office, the Caye Caulker Village Council Office and at the Leo Bradly Library and the Turton Library Center in Belize City. The Department of Environment has a copy in Belmopan. You can also view it online at http://doe.gov.bz/index.php/eias
An EIR for a Blackadore Caye resort project was previously published and approved in 2006.
But faced with a growing public movement to turn the entire caye into a preserve, the developers “decided to create a development that would suit its surroundings.” In other words, design a dazzling resort that would also preserve and protect and even enhance the island’s fragile eco-system.
Sort of reaching for a win-win.
So what’s new? What’s different?
Quite a bit.
For one, the density of development on the actual island has been drastically reduced. In fact the ratio of development to conservation space has been reversed. In this current configuration, only 40 percent of Blackadore’s nearly 107 acres will be developed and 60 percent is designated as conservation land.
How is this achieved? Two big decisions were made.
First, the airstrip — with its problematic private plane carbon footprint — has been ditched. In its place will be a helipad. (Private jets and planes will presumably be parked at the international airport in Belize and, some day, at the international airport proposed for northern Ambergris Caye.) Most arrivals will be by boat.
Second, in order to reduce the density of construction on land, a sizable chunk of the resort development — called Blackadore Village –has been moved out over the water on a curved pier, called an outrigger. It is located on the west side of the island and will support a three-story welcome center, hotel suites and some shops and restaurants and docking for about six vessels, water taxis and private boats.
The outrigger pier’s buildings will be a seamless continuation of the on-land resort center, with its dramatic focal point: the Blackadore Village courtyard plaza that also doubles as the cap on an enormous rainwater cistern. Around the plaza will be more restaurants and shops, a market, a spa and fitness center, a conference center, a saltwater swimming pool, staff offices and employee dorms, recreation fields, an small island farm, maintenance facilities and centralized energy and water facilities.
A service dock will be located at the northern-most tip of the island for the arrival of staff and supplies and removal of waste.
At the southernmost tip of the island, an exclusive clubhouse for estate owners and other residents will be built, substantially over the water. The clubhouse pier provides docking for a handful of boats no more than 20 feet long.
The placement of the various piers, especially the outrigger, is in the deepest waters around the island in order to minimize dredging
The resort plans include 20 two-bedroom beach bungalows, 4 three-bedroom deluxe villas, 18 one-bedroom suites and 8 two-bedroom “lock-off” suites. The hotel suites will be located on the outrigger pier. The beach bungalows will be located along the eastern shore.
There will be lots available of varying size for up to 34 estate homes, located on both sides of the 600-foot-wide island, south of the village.
The development’s tagline — “A restorative island project” — has raised eyebrows. How do you build a high-end resort on an uninhabited island while simultaneously claiming to rescue the island from its own self-destruction?
The EIR goes to great pains, with unabashed ambition, to explain how.
The caye “presents an unparalleled opportunity . . . to create a truly restorative island concept with the deepest levels of sustainability for the resort development, helping to set new standards for Belize and the world. This development will be a demonstration of the powerful collaboration of human development and a truly regenerative natural environment.”
The developers vow to “exceed current environmental standards for resort development in Belize.” And they don’t stop there. Blackadore Caye intends to be “the world’s greenest resort development and become a new national icon for the country of Belize.”
It helps that the lead designer for this project is Jason F. McLennan who co-wrote the “Living Building Challenge” standards created by the International Living Future Institute, which takes eco-sensitive development steps beyond the current engineering high standard, the LEED Platinum Certification.
The EIR outlines an extensive list of strategies designed to minimize the inevitable impact of development on the island.
For one, all pedestrian and cart traffic will be limited to a single elevated boardwalk that will traverse the 2.2-mile length of the island. There will be no motorized vehicles on the island and all motorized boats will have limited access to the island. Recreational boating will be limited to non-motorized, shallow-draft craft.
Power generation will come from solar photovoltaic cells with backup generators. As is done all over Belize, rainwater will be collected from buildings and stored in cisterns. The developers are also considering the use of solar water stills to supplement the potable water supply.
Wastewater will be fully treated and reused for plant irrigation, creating a “net-zero water standard for the entire island.” Likewise, a “zero waste” strategy will reuse and recycle all organic waste with a goal of capturing a minimum of 80 percent of all waste. Any balance will be shipped to the centralized waste management facility on the mainland.
As stated earlier, piers have been designated for the deepest waters in order to minimize dredging, resulting in “significantly less” dredging than proposed in the 2006 proposal. The water under the piers could be developed with an artificial reef to encourage fish populations and propagation.
The resort will be limited to a maximum 534 guests, 1,068 employees and 100 transient visitors at any one time.
And what about the 60 percent of the island that does not fall under the resort footprint?
The conservation area extends across the entire island and mostly on the western shoreline. What is not developed will be aggressively conserved, according to the report.
Much of the conservation area will be in the northern tip of the island, referred to as the Beach Ridge Forest, which is characterized by coconut and sea grape trees, saltwater palmetto, Black Poison Wood,white mangroves and Buttonwood trees.
The southern end of the island is marked by grasslands, “thick and nearly impenetrable.” The soil there is of low nutritional value peat and limestone with poor drainage.
In between is a collection of coconut palms (possibly an attempt at cultivation at one time) and Saltwater Palmetto that transitions into a semi-deciduous broadleaf forest along the windward coast of Bay Cedar, Ink plants, wild cherry, Black Poison Wood and more palmettos and coconuts.
Beyond two abandoned house foundations ans a cistern, there is no evidence of colonization of the island in the past — beyond the occasional use as a stopover by fishermen.
To stem the invasion of saltwater on the essentially flat regions and to slow erosion, as many as 5,000 mangrove plants will be introduced initially. Another 20,000 mangroves will be planted as the island develops.
The design anticipates no seawalls or bulkheads.
And what about wildlife?
The island is a popular stop over for migratory birds and many native species including the Black Catbird, Gran Catbird, Hooded oriels, Mangrove warblers, ospreys, brown pelicans and spotted sandpipers. The Black Catbird is considered endangered but is found in abundance on the island.
Mammals are pretty much relegated to mice and bats although possible raccoon tracks have been spotted. Amphibians, according to the report consist of the usual green tree snakes, black striped snakes, boas and of course black iguanas. Quite common and a “nuisance” are the plentiful populations of mosquitoes, sand flies, short jackets and Doctor flies.
Not observed were crocodiles nor, off shore, manatees — although their potential presence is not discounted given the nature of the region.
Development of the Blackadore Caye resort is expected to begin once the necessary legal and planning requirements are met and is expected to take three to five years for completion. From 175 to 250 people will be employed during the construction phase.
Phase 1 is slated to begin February 2016 and consists of temporary docking, infrastructure in the south end. By April 2016, a prototype estate house will be under construction and in June construction of the Clubhouse commences along with a temporary access road for construction.
Phase 2 should see the beginning of North End infrastructure in October 2016 and in January 2017 construction will begin on the outrigger pier, hotel suites and beachside bungalows.
Phase 3 targets the start of the village center in June 2017 and general restoration of the rest of the island.
The January 14 meeting is for the public to ask questions and make comments. Comment books are also available where hard copies of the Environmental Impact Report are located.