By Constantinos Psillides
THE ROW between the EU and the government over beach development at businessman’s Nicolas Shacolas planned €1.5 billion golf Limni resort near Polis Chrysochous looks increasingly likely to end up in the European Court of Justice.
The resort is scheduled to be built next to a turtle nesting beach in an EU-designated protected area, prompting the EU to declare the guidelines issued by Cyprus’ environment department as insufficient. The EU has blocked the project pending the resolution of this issue and everything suggests that it will be resolved by the European Court, which does not bode well for the project.
The resort is owned by Cyprus Limni Resorts and Golf Courses PLC which in turn is owned by the Shacolas Group of Companies.
The government received last week what is called a “reasoned opinion” letter by the EU. The letter details Cyprus’ obligations and states that failure to comply will lead the case to court. Cyprus has been given two months to either comply or convince the EU Commission that all necessary steps were taken to ensure the protection of the turtle beach.
As to the specifics of the letter, nobody really knows except the head of the environment department Elena Stylianopoulou, her legal advisors and the state legal services.
“I am not at liberty to disclose anything. Suffice to say that we have received the letter and that we are working closely with the legal services to resolve the matter,” Stylianopoulou told the Sunday Mail, refusing to comment on any specifics.
Asked what kind of penalty Cyprus could be faced with, Stylianopoulou said that it depended on a number of factors. “We cannot be sure. Sometimes the European Court orders the party to comply; sometimes it accompanies that ruling with a fine. We are handling the matter,” she said.
Environment Commissioner Ioanna Panayiotou was more talkative, hazarding a guess as to the letter’s content.
“As far as I know this is a 45-page warning. It is highly probable that the EU Commission deemed the environmental impact studies filed by the company and accepted by the environment department as insufficient. The EU is extremely sensitive in these issues and probably wants to ensure that the turtle habitat won’t be disturbed,” said Panayiotou, pointing out that she opposed the project from the beginning.
“I always maintained that nothing should be built near the turtle beach. But since the project was underway, the very least we can do in make sure that the beach remains undisturbed,” she said, adding that she had already notified the palace of her disagreement.
Asked why the contents of the letter were not disclosed, the commissioner explained that the suggestions and questions posed by the EU are framed in such a manner so as to be admissible in court, should the case go that far. “We are entering legal grounds now. The EU might call on the European Court as an absolute last resort but they want to be prepared.”
The letter can only be made public record if the case goes to court. Environmental organisations, both in Cyprus and other EU countries, have expressed their disagreement over what they consider lack of transparency.
The project begun back in 1983 when Shacolas bought the defunct mine called Limni with the prospect of reopening it.
The mine had ceased operations some four years previously, but the businessman soon gave up on the idea of re-opening the mine. Realising its potential as a golf resort, he began buying up the surrounding land.
Fast-forward to 2004, when then president Tassos Papadopoulos opened a public discussion on golf courses development. In 2005 the cabinet approved the legal framework for 14 golf courses throughout the island, called “Cyprus’ New Policy on Golf Courses”.
In 2006 the Shacolas Group set up the Cyprus Limni Resorts & Golfcourses Plc, outlining the company’s vision for the future. The resort included two 18-hole golf courses, a five-star luxury hotel, a spa and wellness centre and – significantly – around 800 beach front properties, a total investment of a €1.5 billion. The company even has plans for a small airline operating out of Paphos airport, catering only to the needs of the residents at the Limni Resort. The company spent €40 million to restore the surrounding area that suffered from years of mining.
The turtle beach was the only glitch in the matrix. The Polis-Yialias turtle beach next to the resort was included in the Natura 2000 network of nature protection areas in the EU.
The conservation area also happens to be of high importance, since the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta-caretta) that nests there is classified as a priority species.
The environment department considered the danger posed to the turtle population and initially decided that no construction should be allowed within 475 metres of the beach.
The company was not happy.
“You can immediately see why this would be problematic for the company,” an environmentalist told the Sunday Mail, explaining that it robbed the company of its main selling point. “You can’t really boast beach front property, if your property is half a kilometre away from the beach, now can you? The company didn’t invest the money just to see the whole project derailed by some turtles,” said the environmentalist, who wishes to remain anonymous.
“Turtle nesting beaches are exposed to many dangers, chief of which of course is human interaction. You are going to have people there swimming, putting up umbrellas, littering, and playing in the sand where the turtles nest,” the environmentalist said.
But all this is nothing compared to the threat created by artificial lighting.
“When turtles are hatched, they immediately head for the closest light source. They see stars and the moon reflected on the sea surface so they make for the sea, as they are meant to do. Setting up artificial lighting near them will disorient them. You can’t have lighting poles, or lighting from a resort or even houses near a turtle beach. It will most surely kill the hatchlings.”
The company challenged the restriction imposed by the environment department and in September 2013 new guidelines were issued, this time limiting the distance designated for wildlife preservation to 280 metres and allowing only one storey houses to be built in the area closest to the beach.
Papadopoulos wasn’t the only one who tried his best to accommodate Shacolas. Former president Demetris Christofias was present at the foundation laying ceremony for the resort, 10 days before the presidential elections in March 2013. Christofias told those present that he met repeatedly with Shacolas and that he “pushed things along” so the project could get the necessary licences.
But it is this change to the beach building zone that the EU is now challenging.
One can easily see why the government is overly eager to usher the project along. Tourism is the island’s primary industry and the prospect of a tourist project worth billions will of course fill government coffers, along with creating a multitude of jobs.
Asked to comment, Shacolas Group Public Relations Director Pavlos Pavlou told the Sunday Mail that the company plans to go ahead with the project.
“The issue is being handled by the competent government department. Cyprus Limni Resorts and Golf Courses PLC was issued valid building permits by the state and plans to go ahead with the project. The company has also complied with the conditions set by the environment department for protecting the habitat,” said Pavlou, adding that the company has spent €40 million to restore the area.
Whatever the outcome, environmentalists are determined to not give up their fight for protecting the turtle beach. With the EU at their side, the government is going to have a hard time explaining their actions.