Plettenberg Bay - Farming it out

The creator of the polo craze seeks approval for a potentially revitalising residential development

More than 3 000 people live in matchbox houses on dirt roads in a tiny village on the sea side of The Crags outside Plettenberg Bay. On the mountain side, people spend more than R3 000/night in season to stay in the most luxurious country-style hotel on the Garden Route at Kurland estate - the venue, too, for the annual polo international between the UK and SA.

But if former E Oppenheimer & Sons MD Clifford Elphick, who owns the 500 ha Kurland, has his way, the two seemingly incompatible groups - poor labourers and polo plutocrats - will share in the benefits flowing from a mixed-use development.

Elphick believes that if it is approved, it will transform the economy of The Crags by providing homes and work opportunities for all income levels in a rural setting. This is not least because it will enclose, and in time transform, the neglected village, many of whose inhabitants are employed by Kurland.

It's unlikely, on the face of it, that housing minister Lindiwe Sisulu would disapprove. In mid-2005, she said she wanted developers to stop making unilateral planning decisions and instead make them jointly with adjacent communities. Poorer communities should share the increased value that flows from additional rights, Sisulu stressed.

Fransche Hoek Estate in the winelands town of Franschhoek has become a model for sustainable development through its provision, with additional funds from government and the Development Bank, of more than 700 homes for low-income residents. But Elphick believes that his development would be the first to contain such a community. The village would, in effect, function as an economic empowerment partner.

But, as usual, Plett's environmental lobbyists - one of the most vociferous of whom, ironically, built her home in a fynbos reserve - are having a field day. And they have objections (see table on page 62) other than the obvious one: that Plett is being swamped by development, most of it ridding the area of the charm that was the attraction in the first place.

Kurland was previously owned for two generations by the Behr family. Third-generation Peter Behr, Elphick's brother-in-law, is now manager of the estate, which has four polo fields and a magnificent pavilion. Though the small Relais & Châteaux hotel does well in season, Elphick clearly wants to make the polo estate pay. It is believed to be costing him more than R3m/year to run.

Elphick, who earlier this year broke away from the Oppenheimers and formed Gem Diamond, says the proposed development will be known as Kurland Estate. It will extend for about 2 600 ha from the slopes of the Tsitsikamma mountains to within 6 km of the coast. A number of neighbours have joined Elphick in an application for approval of a plan that will include residential, commercial, light-industrial and agricultural components.

The neighbouring properties are located mostly on the sea side, where there are brickfields, a sawmill and some commercial activity. Kurland borders a nature area managed by SANParks.

Elphick says the development would go a long way towards creating a balanced and largely self-sufficient community.

"In line with government's requirements [as laid out in the Accelerated & Shared Growth Initiative of SA, or Asgisa]," he says, "it will provide the entire spectrum of housing. It will also contain a commercial village, two mixed-use villages, an area for light industry, farming operations, parks, wetlands, green belts and sports fields and facilities.

"It will offer the inhabitants of Kurland village job opportunities within walking distance of their upgraded homes. This village has been described as having virtually no future without intervention. We aim to provide that intervention."

Elphick and his neighbours have engaged well-known Garden Route planner Chris Mulder, who has undertaken an environmental impact study and produced a master plan. His practice drew up the plans for the almost-completed Thesen Islands development on the island previously occupied by the Thesen sawmill in the middle of Knysna lagoon. It also designed Knysna's 17-year-old Belvidere Estate.

Mulder confirms that the design for Kurland Estate is supported by research into vegetation, wetlands, wildlife, soil types and water availability. In addition, technical studies cover roads, storm-water management, electricity, potential traffic and visual impact.

"We are not suggesting we spend R50m on a golf course and houses solely for the rich," Mulder argues. "Instead, we decided see whether there was the potential for a fabulous farm and housing that could follow from it."

He confirms that homes will range from "affordable but well-designed on 300 m² to whatever money can buy on 2 000 m² or more".

One of the key complaints is that the development would draw heavily from already precarious water sources.

"Water is a problem," agrees Elphick. "It's something the scientists are trying to solve . If it remains a problem despite suggestions such as the harvesting of rain, we may have to come up with a lesser plan. Nothing is set in stone."

The farming operations envisaged include macadamia nuts, honeybush tea and crops yielding essential floral oils.

"Since the brickfields have a limited life span and the sawmill cannot be expanded," says Mulder, "there is not much to sustain Kurland village in the long term."

But farming activities would do that, while construction would provide jobs in the medium term. "Thesen Islands has sustained 10 000 workers for eight years in everything from building and woodwork to carpeting and lighting," says Mulder.

Elphick says the plan is for land owners to extend the macadamia project to emerging farmers using a co-operative model. Research shows that the annual income from 2 ha of nut orchards could sustain a small farmer and his family.

"Instead of paying subs to a club committee, as is the case in a golf village, residents could be growing a crop to supplement their levies," says Mulder. "Not that everyone will want to take the risk of being a farmer."

Elphick adds that areas will be cleared of alien vegetation and the fynbos and wetlands rehabilitated. "Low-profile tourist facilities in the form of hiking, horse trails and bush camps are being considered."

Polo activities on Kurland, including stabling, will continue and polo on a wider scale would also produce revenue. The design allows for two smaller polo villages, where players could accommodate their horses and families. Up-and-coming players will be a target market, confirms Elphick.

But numerous issues still have to be thrashed out, not least the objections of the Nature's Valley Trust and Plett's community environment forum. They argue that the proposal conflicts with principles of the provincial spatial development framework, which seeks to prevent urban sprawl. This is because it aims to establish a new town outside any legitimate or credible urban edge.

Mulder retaliates that Kurland falls so far away from Plett that it has its own urban edge - it is a 15-minute-drive away and the only "village" between Plett and Port Elizabeth if Humansdorp is excluded. "The development will fall within its own urban edge."

But that may not prevent developers from piling in between Plett and Kurland, as environmentalists fear.

"No-one wants to ruin the area," says Elphick, "least of all our family - we live there [his parents-in-law included]. We want to take a balanced approach to ensuring the viability of our investment. I believe a reasonable approach to development should be supported and encouraged."

If it is approved - and the process is likely to take a year or more - Elphick believes Kurland Estate could be a powerful force for good. "It conforms with the provincial authorities' triple bottom line requirement for environmental and socioeconomic sustainability."

Mulder has the final say: "Without construction - and, of course, tourism - there would be no job creation in these areas."

Article by: By Linda Stafford - http://free.financialmail.co.za