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Wikipedia defines sustainable development as “a pattern of resource use that aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for future generations.” I sat down with OBMI architect and Green VI co-founder Steve Fox, Shannon Gore from the Conservation and Fisheries Department, Doug Riegels of Mosaka Ventures and PG editor Owen Waters to discuss the practical application of this concept in the BVI.

During our roundtable discussion, I learned that sustainable development challenges builders and architects to plan and design in new and creative ways, ways they wouldn’t have otherwise considered if there were no natural restrictions or government-imposed rules.

“When OBMI started the masterplan design at Mooney Bay,” Steve Fox said, “we brought in a hydrologist, and it radically changed how we viewed the project. It challenged the preconceptions of the design team. You go in there with ideas of your own, and it sort of throws those out and introduces new ones.” The hydrologist, a specialist who analyses water flow, water management and water resource protection, offered solutions to the potential runoff problem for the proposed development.

The aerial view of the current structures at Mooney Bay. All images courtesy of OBMI.

“That’s what needs to happen,” Shannon Gore enthused, adding that instead of simply attempting to be eco-friendly because it’s a buzzword, working with the natural surroundings will save developers money. “Some developers say, ‘I want this here.’ Regardless of anything. They’re wasting a lot of money on trying to redesign how water falls down a hill. It’s going to fall the way it wants to. Instead, they try to think of some pump that makes it go over the hill and then you have to clean out the drainage area. That costs a lot of money. But it happens.”

“When you get the architect and hydrologist together,” Doug Riegels added, “you can actually form some pretty fun stuff. [At Mooney Bay], it all worked well. We tied it all together in a very functional manner.” In Mooney Bay, the hydrologist proposed a lagoon at the base of the hillside property, at the site of the current tennis courts, that would keep the sedimentation and runoff from the development from going into the sea. In addition to being functional, the lagoon also became a design feature, complete with its own central island—a possible location for the resort’s spa. “You come out of it with a much more well-rounded approach,” he said then continued, “And you always have to design with the historic flow because that’s the way the water comes down the hill.”

The hydrologist's proposed lagoon. 

He mentioned the fact that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has different rules for coastal zones and non-coastal zones, even though “if you do your development on the hillside, it has a direct impact on the reefs. People should be aware that the marine environment starts at the top of the hill, not the bottom of the hill. Everything is interwoven,” Doug said. “You have your rain; it goes down the ghuts then to the mangroves and ultimately to the reefs.”

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He then asked the question that is at the crux of the sustainable development debate: “How do you deal with that in a fair and equitable way that is both economically beneficial and environmentally beneficial? It’s expensive, from a developer’s point of view, because the minute you start borrowing money, that interest clock is ticking. There’s that silent urgency.”

He continued, “I think as a general rule of thumb, from a developer’s perspective, there needs to be some rules laid down by the planning department. For example, for the most part, if you know there are coral reefs, I firmly believe for myself that they should remain untouched. They are such a complicated ecosystem. It’s easy transplanting a tree and moving it back and forth, but coral reefs are a very different and delicate matter.” While Doug wishes to work within the limits of the government’s requirements, he added that the current EIA process is not quick, but then said that “any process that’s worthwhile is never going to be quick.”

Shannon, on the other hand, doesn’t believe the EIA timeline is long enough. “Most developers take a month or two to complete an EIA. You can’t really understand an area in 60 days, especially if it’s never been touched before. There’s no literature. There’s nothing on it. Considering oceanographic surveys or terrestrial surveys, it takes longer than that. It doesn’t cover temporal processes that may impact the area.”

Both agreed that planning regulations need to be more defined. “Something basic,” Shannon said. “If you just know to explain in your EIA how you’re not going to affect marine waters. It’s pretty simple, but nobody can do that. They can’t figure out mitigation measures.”

“It’s a bartering game,” Doug said. “If a developer comes up and give you a straight EIA off the bat, then you’re going to come back and say, ‘This is not bad, but you also need this, this and this.’ There’s no clear path from A to B. You can present a certain project, and there will be different routes open to you. If you want to do something the right way, the routes are so unclear. That’s where the frustration lies.”

“[Developers] want to achieve sustainable development,” Shannon said, “but it goes back to the question: How do you achieve that?” She then brought up the fact that the Planning Department currently has planning regulations in draft form. In the meantime, responsible developers who want to conserve resources as well as money benefit from collaborative design brainstorming sessions, or charettes—like the one with the hydrologist, developer and architects in Mooney Bay—in which experts from different fields offer suggestions for sustainable development. “These are the kind of things that should happen on all developments," Shannon said. "When you go ahead and have everyone involved at the very beginning of the project.” 

Architects brainstorm Mooney Bay's possibilities.

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