Columbus Landing renews controversy in Aguadilla

Written by  //  November 21, 2016  //  Tourism/Transportation  //  7 Comments

The planned Columbus Landing resort will occupy 121 acres of pristine land in the Aguadilla area. (Credit: Movimiento Playuela)

The planned Columbus Landing resort will occupy 121 acres of pristine land in the Aguadilla area. (Credit: Movimiento Playuela)

Economic development and the natural environment are frequently at odds in Puerto Rico and the latest example of this conflict is a renewed controversy over a tourist resort planned near Aguadilla, on Puerto Rico’s west coast.

Columbus Landing, in the works for nearly two decades, is a master-planned destination resort along the lines of Palmas del Mar centered around a casino hotel and with a condo hotel, condominiums and residential villas nestled nearby.

It will occupy 121 acres of prime, undeveloped oceanfront land located in the Playuela sector of Punta Borinquen, about a mile from Rafael Hernández Airport.

The site is a popular recreational area and a magnet for local and visiting surfers who are drawn by its internationally renowned surf breaks.

Supporters count on the project providing work opportunities for the area while detractors decry the loss of yet another unspoiled swath of land to encroaching development.

“People need jobs,” Carlos Méndez, the recently re-elected mayor of Aguadilla, told News Is My Business. “They need to put food on the table.”

But various groups who have banded together to resist the project say the area would be best served by keeping it as a natural reserve. They argue the resort is not sustainable, it’s in the wrong place as the area is prone to erosion and floods, and will impact the area’s environment, especially the local aquifers and the already endangered, surrounding coral life.

“We’re not against progress but it should be a sustainable development,” said Luis Villanueva, of Sierra Club Puerto Rico, noting that mega-tourist projects such as the one envisioned by the developers are no longer popular and that travelers are now seeking green spaces and eco-friendly hotels. “Those who want to see a casino can always find them in San Juan.”

Recently, initial work on Columbus Landing got off the ground when workers began to tear down trees to make room for an access road with sanitary, electric and fiber optic infrastructure work next on the agenda, according to one of the developers.

Concurrently, opponents have set up a protest camp in front of the construction site and launched a series of demonstrations with the latest one taking place this past Saturday.

Protracted opposition
It’s not the first time there is an effort to derail the development.

In fact, opposition seems to have nagged the project from its very inception in the 1990s which, combined with the island’s economic troubles and problems in capitalizing the project, managed to put it off until 2012 when the developers moved to get permits for the road now under construction.

Reinaldo Vincenty, a partner in Caribbean Management Group, the holding company that owns and is developing the land, said in a short telephone interview that all the final permits for the development are up to date and that they have been renewed yearly since their issuance in 1997. He compared this to a license renewal process.

A spokesman for the Puerto Rico Planning Board said a review of the Columbus Landing case file shows that the building site authorization, which dates to 1994 and is required ahead of any other permit, “is up to date and active” but he was unable to comment on the status of permits granted to the project.

Vincenty said the developers have financing for initial construction work but declined to comment on the total cost of the venture. He dismissed published reports regarding the scope of the development and its purported price tag of $50 million but declined to give any details. Opponents claim the figure could reach $100 million.

“This is a very Puerto Rican project,” said Vincenty, dismissing any involvement with a company called Stone Creek Partners, whose advisory work covers asset management, real estate development, hotel and resort feasibility consulting, among other areas.

In a phone call from his California-based office, Stone Creek CEO Donald Bredberg told News Is My Business that more that five years ago his company carried out some work for the owners of Columbus Landing and that it involved conducting due diligence on the project and some initial investor outreach. Nothing came of it and the company did not continue in any role.

Bredberg, who described the site for the planned resort as “one of the most beautiful places on Earth,” said he has been receiving a lot of hate mail recently.

A look at the company portal, whose “global reach” map includes Puerto Rico, carried the following disclaimer on a page devoted to the Columbus Landing project: “Citizens of Aguadilla, please note we have no involvement with this project at this time, our work for owner was completed several years ago.”

Boost to tourism, jobs
Vincenty said his project will help expand tourism which, he said, currently contributes only 4 percent to Puerto Rico’s GNP (the figure is actually higher, at 7.1 percent) compared to 80 percent in other Caribbean islands. Furthermore, it will create jobs though he did not mention just how many.

The mayor of Aguadilla said lack of employment opportunities is fueling the exodus of people from Puerto Rico and Columbus Landing will create more than 700 jobs, sorely needed to reduce the area’s unemployment rate of between 13 and 14 percent.

Méndez also stressed the necessity for more hotels to accommodate the growing number of tourists visiting the area.

“They have nowhere to stay,” he said.

Which is why the municipality recently built a 79-room hotel, next door to Aguadilla’s Aquatic Park, that will officially open sometime in January and February. Méndez said he is looking to brand the hotel and is holding conversations with three potential national chains: Wyndham, Holiday Inn and Hilton.

The hotel represents a $23 million investment, of which $19 million went into the construction; the balance will cover the cost of furnishing and outfitting the property.

Financing came from Banco Santander, Banco Popular and the Puerto Rico Economic Development Bank (the loan came prior to the bank freezing all new financing.)

“This is a self-paying project,” the mayor said.

Opponents of Columbus Landing, a mix of different groups comprising people from the area and from other parts of the island, are looking to promote “massive protests” in an effort to stop the project.

“(The developers) are not willing to consider a natural reserve because there is no money in that,” wrote an opponent in an e-mail related to a recent meeting at which the developers said they had discarded plans for a breakwater and a pier. “They will leave a path and a gazebo so the surfers won’t cry.”

Long time Aguadilla resident Edwin Loveland lamented that the developers of the project can’t see the site as land worth saving.

He would like to see the Columbus Landing site turned into a reforested park and a major tourist attraction. Columbus Landing, so called because this is where Columbus is believed to have landed on his second trip to the New World, already draws countless visitors, including surfers from all over the world and people who like to walk or jog along the property’s trails.

According to Movimiento Playuela, the property is a favorite area for paddle boarding, snorkeling, bathing, running 4-track, mountain bikes, fishing, and other activities.

“This is the area’s only lungs,” Loveland said.

7 Comments on "Columbus Landing renews controversy in Aguadilla"

  1. Ivette Mejias November 21, 2016 at 7:33 PM · Reply

    To Whom It May Concern:

    I think that you or somebody from any news media organization should come here and talk to some people that can tell you how things have been managed down here in Aguadilla and in all Puerto Rico. They are operating under “It is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.”

    Aguadilla’s Mayor earned his position twenty years ago, as a mayor under lies, such as telling or making people think that he was academically prepared for the position when he wasn’t. To begin with. Therefore, has managed to established his ways of conducting business without letting the people of Aguadilla know ahead of time of any plans. He does EVERYTHING BY obscurantism and I for one think that this situation of making decisions under obscurantism should not continue and should be punished by law.

    There are a LOT of irregularities when imposing what was not properly announced to peoples against peoples wish or even their knowledge. I want the whole world to know that even Puerto Rico’s financial crisis is due to people like this mayor and his friends, which in the most unbelievable move; the ones that provoked the biggest financial chaos in Puerto Rico, managed their way to be appointed to be part of the financial Council as our rescuers. When in fact, the ones that were appointed to be in our financial council to work Puerto Rico’s financial crisis were appointed in United States under close conversations with Hillary Clinton as the “rescuers.” The “rescuers were the ones “responsible” of Puerto Rico’s financial crisis. “How about those damn’ potatoes?”

    There are a lot more of information that the whole world, especially in United States needs to know about Fortuño, his people, his friend Pedro Pierluissi (both made millions under Fortuño’s government). Fortuño made the biggest loans in Puerto Rico knowing that we didn’t have any source of repayment and now we have Pierluissi appointed again and against our people’s wishes and even the brother in law is the president of the Financial council appointed to fix or supervised the crisis that they made.

    Again, How about that? Everybody should know the truth that Fortuño hided very well, he made himself looking as he is even welcomed here in Puerto Rico, when he is not welcome and he knows it. Why he is here and his “partners” are appointed in the financial council that nobody wants them?

  2. Dan November 21, 2016 at 8:51 PM · Reply

    STOP this project!!! Leave it for generations to come to enjoy it’s natural beauty!!!

  3. Yvette November 22, 2016 at 9:46 AM · Reply

    Stop. Leave PR natural It will be better. You are killing the island by doing it. I have been to Palma del Mars. And it was not user friendly. Beautiful It’s only for the rich. Who can afford this. Someone is getting paid under the table for this”…beware

  4. lourdes November 22, 2016 at 3:07 PM · Reply

    I would like someone to look into these permits they have had since the early 1990’s which have been renewed year after year. Since then there are laws that have changed and much more known about the environmental impact that these type of projects have on the natural resources. The JCA (Environmental Quality Board) has Reglamento 6026 in which section 225 (b) clearly states that any Environmental Impact Statement that is more than 10 years old has to be done again (to meet the agency’s Article 4C of Law #9) but according to the govt. this law does not apply because it was put in place after the original Project was approved in the 1990’s WHAT? Does this make any sense at all? NO. This is a way to get around the law, the law seems to only benefit those who are rich or powerful. The other big problem we have seen with these large projects is that permits are loosely issued for ground removal. The entire area is cleared of trees (thousands of birds, and other creatures lose their homes) only to later find out the funding for the project is no longer available, didn’t get approval or the deal fell through. There is an entire coral reef full of life, a reef that protects the coast from large swells, a reef that will surely die if this enormous project is built. See those dark areas in the ocean just off shore, that;s the reef. The run off water alone will suffocate the reef and kill it. The other question is used water, where will the sewage and used water go? Currently we have issues with the PRASA (AAA) facilities throughout the island, most currently under some type of EPA Clean Water ACT waiver because they don’t comply with the Clean Water act. Just look at your water bill, see that special fee at the bottom? That’s the EPA’s fine being passed along to the citizens of the island because the govt. hasn’t paid them in the past 20 years. If the mayor and developers took some of the many years they have been fighting the community to look into the type of people who visit the area, they would see that people are not coming to the west end of the island to stay in big hotels or play in casinos (they can go to Condado or Isla Verde or the Dominican Republic for that) they are coming to the west side to get away from all of that and to enjoy nature, pristine beaches, the peace and quiet and the water sports, surfing, SUP, diving, snorkling, etc. With respect to jobs…. the majority of the jobs will be waiting on rich people while the wages being paid to the Puerto Ricans are minimum wage if that. The project says it’s a Green Project, look at the layout and see just how much green it is NOT.

  5. Jay November 23, 2016 at 5:20 PM · Reply

    Why don’t we just cement the planet while we’re at it … LEAVE ALONE this pristine land!!!! Its worth way more untouched than some silly over cost underperforming hotel resort.
    One of the reasons us “Northeasters” bought homes in PR was for the tranquillity and natural habitat to enjoy life’s pleasures .. surf, swim and fish … without the land and nature, we’ll leave and go elsewhere. Then the 1000+ homeowners will offset your dumb investor bet here.

    • Alex December 6, 2016 at 10:43 PM · Reply

      well said

  6. Un available December 7, 2016 at 12:41 PM · Reply

    Stop this project….surfing tourism has brought millions of dollars yearly to this area….which they awant to destroy…..we say NO TO Columbus landiNG.

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