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Villagers defend property mogul

Cape Argus
Villagers defend property mogul

Arniston villagers have rallied to support property magnate Robert Haarburger whose plans for a new development in the area have run into opposition from wealthy holiday home owners.

And Haarburger has denied claims he is a villain who wants to ruin the town's unspoilt beauty.

Last Saturday, Weekend Argus wrote about a big new development being put on hold after the Arniston Conservation Association threatened court action because construction was going ahead without approved building plans.

But its victory was short lived. Haarburger's appeal to have his building plans approved was successful. The municipality passed the plans this week, although it did fine Haarburger R180 000 for jumping the gun. Construction of the property, in the centre of the town, continued on Friday.

The article sparked a flurry of smses, some for and others against the development.

Papers were filed in the Cape High Court and the matter was to be heard but then Haarburger agreed to stop construction just before the issue went to court.

Colin Bird, chairperson of the Arniston Conservation Association, which is spearheading the court battle, and of the Ratepayers' Association, said the community was "incensed" and that the development would spoil the aesthetics of the village.

The fishing village on the Southern Cape coast is known as both Waenhuiskrans - after the huge cave on the coast - and Arniston, after the hospital ship HMS Arniston which sank there in 1815 with massive loss of life.

The town's attractions include white beaches, charming fishermen's cottages, whale-watching in the bay, fishing, walking trails in pristine countryside, clear rock pools and diving among the many wrecks.

The small fishing community lives in picturesque Kassiesbaai, a national monument. It is these attributes the two associations say they want to preserve.

They believe the village is sought-after by tourists largely because it is small and un-spoilt. At the heart of the battle is Haarburger's planned double-storey Arniston Bay Centre, which will accommodate business on the ground floor and 12 self-catering units on the first floor. The company responsible is Verreweide Eiendomsontwikkeling, which is headed by Haarburger.

The Cape Agulhas Municipality sold the property in 2003 for R426 000 to the Arniston Bay Consortium. The municipality called for development proposals specifically for "business purposes", which would benefit the community and tourists, and would be the focal point of the town. But development never took place. Last year, Haarburger bought the company that owned the property. He is also owner of the Arniston Seaside Cottages and the Arniston Hotel, which was recently renovated and had a third floor added. The ratepayers' association tried to block both these developments.

In an interview this week Haarburger came across as a man who has the town and its residents at heart. He settled in Arniston 18 years ago when he returned from living abroad. He and relatives owned land there that he developed. "People told me I was crazy to return, but I love this country."

He provides employment for over 100 villagers and gives others businesses opportunities, like running a curio shop in the hotel and a spaza shop which is supported by the villagers as the nearest town with amenities is Bredasdorp, 20km away. "I love Arniston and I believe I have a responsibility to provide work and uplift the villagers."

He said it was not the villagers who were against his development but a handful of "vindictive" holiday home owners pursuing a "vendetta" against him.

He said the controversial site he was developing formerly had a derelict double garage and a number of phone booths. It was being replaced by a two-storey building which would be sympathetic to the surrounding environment and in tune with Arniston vernacular. It would have a thatched roof, with white plaster walls and gables.

"Ask any of the villagers if they know (Colin) Bird. Many only know him by name, and have never seen him. Why don't you ask him and his mates what they have contributed to this village or what they have done for the Kassiesbaai community?"

He accused them of being "selfish" and protecting their own interests. He claimed some of them owned holiday homes that were not well kept, and were even bordering on dilapidated. "They give nothing back. Their gardens are overgrown with bushes and long grass and their homes are in need of a good coat of paint - so much for aesthetics."

He said when he stopped construction a week ago, 50 breadwinners were out of work. "Why do they not use all this negative energy and legal fees for something more constructive that would benefit Arniston and its community?"

He warned that the association would not stop him, and that it would be better if they worked with him rather than against him. "I'm here to stay. I'm not going anywhere. I'm not going away."

Some Kassiesbaai residents and even some from Bredasdorp spoke in favour of Haarburger's development and job opportunities he provided.

Both Berdine Daniels and Elzette Murtz, who were born in Kassiesbaai, were grateful for the opportunities he had provided.

Daniels runs a spaza shop beside the hotel. "I employee three people who otherwise would not have work. These people who are trying to stop the development can't speak for us.

"Once this new development is complete we will move there and it will be a great opportunity to expand."

Murtz is among six people that Haarburger sent to hotel school in Cape Town. "Now I have a bright future ahead of me," she said.

Gordon Hopely, from Bredasdorp, said Haarburger helped him achieve his dream of setting up an electrical business. "I employ 12 people and this development will provide us with constant work for a year. Haarburger is not the bad guy they are trying to make him out to be."


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