• Leaves operator ‘between rock and hard place’
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Opponents of an Adelaide-based swimming pigs attraction yesterday hailed the Town Planning Committee for upholding “the rule of law” by denying its application to develop a bar and grill.
Leslie Vanderpool, principal of the Bahamas International Film Festival, and a resident of Beach Drive where Beyond Da Village Pig Experience is located, said the regulator’s decision sent a message to all developers and businesses that “people can’t operate like it’s the Wild Wild West” over the country’s planning and zoning regulations.
She spoke after Glyndell Josey, the Town Planning Committee’s secretary, yesterday issued a message saying: “As a participant of the Town Planning Committee public hearing held on March 10, 2022, this is to inform that the committee has resolved to refuse the application submitted by Charles Johnson relative to the subject matter.”
Mr Johnson, Beyond Da Village’s operator, told Tribune Business that he plans to appeal the Town Planning Committee’s decision. But, regardless of the outcome, he pledged not to abandon the four pigs at his property.
Disclosing that the decision has left the $50,000 investment in his business, and his six employees, in limbo, he added that he had “shut down” commercial operations at the site from Monday prior to Town Planning’s decision.
Mr Johnson said he will now seek clarification on whether the bar and grill’s rejection means Beyond Da Village cannot conduct any commercial operations, including permitting tourists and visitors to swim with his pigs.
“I will appeal. I will appeal the decision,” he confirmed to this newspaper. “I’m not giving up my animals. I raised them from when they were small. I have animals that I know through their names. They just don’t want any type of commercial activity on that property it appears.
“I cannot presume I’m allowed to conduct commercial activity. I cannot render any services that appear to be commercial on that property. We just shut it down, which we did from Monday. We’ve not been operating from Monday. I will not deny that I cannot sell or do anything of that sort; any commercial activity on that property.”
Mr Johnson said he also needed to clarify whether persons can still access the beach through his property. He added that he had invested $50,000 in Beyond Da Village, and moved into the tourism business, when COVID forced the temporary closure of his gym enterprise – an outlay that has now been endangered by Town Planning’s decision.
The main obstacle that Beyond Da Village faced, apart from its lack of Town Planning approval when it began operating last June, was the fact it is located in an area that is zoned as ‘Low Density Residential 1’. This means commercial activity is not supposed to take place.
“The Government, obviously they took the recommendations from the new zoning committee they have, and also the views from just the people on this particular road [Beach Drive],” Mr Johnson added. “I think they used me as a measure to stop any further activity.
“The issue might not be me. It sets the precedent for future activity to follow. I don’t think it’s fair. Each application has to be viewed on a case-by-case basis. I’m between a rock and a hard place. I have all the relevant agency approvals on one hand, but not Town Planning. It’s kind of disappointing it took so long to get to to this point. I invested everything I had.”
The Town Planning decision likely sets a precedent for the other Beach Drive-based swimming pigs attraction, Da Pig Beach, which has yet to come up for a hearing although the regulator is understood to have similar concerns about its presence in a residentially-zoned area.
Mr Johnson, who said bars and other commercial activity had been permitted in the area many years ago, argued that Town Planning may have given too much weight to the relatively small number of Beach Drive residents opposed to his venture and largely ignored the 175-strong petition supporting him because many signatories did not live on that road.
Asserting that many Beach Drive residents were absentee owners, the Beyond Da Village operator said his commercial closure – temporary or otherwise – would deprive New Providence of a much-needed tourist experience that was off-property for hotel guests.
“I try to obey the law as much as possible,” Mr Johnson said. “That’s what I’ve been doing, and why we had all these approvals in place from last year. The only issue was the zoning aspect. I don’t get it. They’re going to leave it low residential zoning, but they have a bunch if vacation homes in the back, Airbnbs. Yet I cannot use my beach?”
Ms Vanderpool, as a fellow business owner, voiced sympathy for the plight that Mr Johnson now finds himself in. “It’s never a win when you have a business that has to close, but it is in the wrong place,” she told Tribune Business. “He just has to work out how to plan according to the law. I feel bad for the people employed there.
“We’re relieved, but I wish him a successful venture wherever he goes next. I did not approach it in the right way. He just came on the scene, pitched up shop and provided opportunities to people.”
Ms Vanderpool added: “People cannot operate like it’s the Wild Wild West. There’s certain rules and regulations you have to abide by. People must realise they cannot feel like they can continue without having proper licences in place. Everyone has to go through the same process, and you cannot be exempt.
“I’ve had to do the same with my business. The scrutiny that I had, I’m glad those procedures are in place to ensure accountability. You have to abide by the proper procedures. It’s important to start and establish businesses here, but you have to do it in the right way to be a legitimate operator and professional.
“I just hope this is a message. We’re not saying don’t operate, but it’s not a commercial space. Anyone can operate in a commercial zone with the right approach.”
Sam Duncombe, president of the reEarth environmental group, who also lives on Beach Drive, echoed Ms Vanderpool by saying: “I wish he had found the appropriate place and done things according to the planning laws, and then this situation would never have happened.
“We need as a country, as citizens, to follow the law of the land because it protects everybody. I’m a bit sad for Mr Johnson, but if we work together as a community, as a country, we can make things happen. We have to follow the law and everybody is better off for that, as we can live in a civilised country that understands that and respects that.
“There are certain ways to do things, and certain ways not to do things. We’re happy in this particular instance it was very, very clear how the area was zoned. We’re very, very satisfied that Town Planning did as we understood it to be, and they acted accordingly,” Ms Duncombe continued.
“It certainly gives me a measure of hope that if we go down this road again, the same laws and regulations that guided this decision will decide all decisions that are made in every facet of government. That’s what keeps us from falling into complete and utter anarchy.”
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