ERF 156 Signal Hill Development In Plettenberg Bay

Residents and visitors in Plettenberg Bay are all aware of the unsightly skeleton of a four-story building high up on the eastern side of the Signal Hill view site that has not been completed for more than three decades – an eyesore visible from Central Beach.

Signal Hill is the most prominent of land marks and view sites in the town and one cherished by all. It is recognised by Heritage Western Cape, who highlight the aesthetic and historic value of Signal Hill “which must remain public open space in perpetuity”, a policy that has been approved by Bitou Municipal Council.

The unsightly structure on Erf 156 is illegal, as the original build was done without approved plans or approval from the municipality, ignored building and zoning restrictions, and defied repeated orders to cease construction. The family-owned property has been involved in much litigation over the years, due to the illegal construction, culminating in a court order ordering the owner to demolish the building within 210 days in November 2016, failing which the municipality was authorised to demolish the structure. As the owner had failed to comply with the court order, demolition tenders were issued in 2018 and provision was made in the municipal budget of several million Rand for the demolition. However, this was never carried out and in April 2018, the owner lodged an application to develop the structure into an 18-unit boutique hotel.

Erf 156 Illegal Structure
If approved, the proposed development would negatively affect the public open space on Signal Hill view-site, by blocking some of the view and increasing traffic and parking congestion. Not surprisingly, this proposal raised the ire of the public and over 300 objections were submitted.

This issue had bounced backwards and forwards for years, through various municipal committees and tribunals and law courts. By 2020, no action had been taken on the demolition or on the hotel application, resulting in the owner lodging an appeal with the Planning Tribunal to force a decision from the municipality. Accordingly, on 8 February 2021, the hotel application came before the Planning Tribunal. Due to a conflict of interest, three Tribunal members (Chairman and the two independent members) recused themselves from this meeting, the latter two having previously objected to the application, leaving municipal officials in attendance. At this meeting, the members present passed the hotel application on to the Mayor as the final arbiter, with the recommendation that it be accepted.

Not long after the Tribunal decision, the Mayor was removed from office, followed by repeated disruptions within the council and the Acting Mayor, on 21 June 2021, approved the application to develop the five-story boutique hotel. This approval was only published on 8 September 2021. Given the disruptions in the Bitou Council since May 2021, from a legal point of view, the central question is whether the Acting Mayor acted lawfully and this in turn depends on whether he was truly vested with mayoral power, including the right to grant the approval in question.

So, what are the issues?

Well, for a start, there is a court order of 25 November 2016 that orders the owner, or failing him authorises the Bitou municipality, to demolish the existing structure. This has not been acted upon by either party for over five years.

Then there is the impact of the development on the very special Signal Hill view site, which raises numerous aesthetic/historical, logistics/land use and title issues.

First the aesthetic and historical impact; the proposed five-story hotel will block some thirty metres of view of Central Beach from the Signal Hill public view site. Any of the daily visitors to the site, sometimes in bus loads, will know it is not just thirty meters of view, but the spectacle of having a 270-degree uninterrupted panoramic view of the entire bay, from the Piesang Valley through Robberg to Keurbooms. But that is about to end for the public. The hotel’s sales pitch states:   “Signal View Boutique Hotel is in a prominent position in Plettenberg Bay. It not only enjoys spectacular views of the Central Beach environment, the ocean (the whole of Formosa Bay from Keurbooms in the north to Robberg in the south is visible from the site), the Robberg Beach, the Piesang River estuary, a large part of Plettenberg Bay south, but is also itself highly visible from the Central Beach area.”

What this is saying is that the visitors to the Signal Hill public view site will have the wide sweep of the panoramic view of the bay interrupted by the top floors of the hotel.  The only uninterrupted panoramic view would henceforth be the privilege of guests who can afford a luxury hotel.

View from Signal Hill view site over the incomplete 4th floor pillars on Erf 156, on which a 5th floor would be constructed
Then there are the logistics and infrastructure aspects. The hotel developers have somehow managed to convince the municipality to waive the requirement for parking – so the development proposal does not include parking for hotel residents or guests to the restaurant/function facilities. But the hotel’s sales brochure rather surprisingly assures potential investors:

“Secure reserved on-site parking is available at a ratio of 1 vehicle per hotel unit.”

By normal standards, a hotel of this size would have to provide at least 20 parking bays and the only space available nearby is the Signal Hill view site. So in future, will the public have to experience the interrupted views from a private hotel parking lot?

So where do the title issues come into this? Well, the municipality does not have unfettered right to determine land use on the adjacent Signal Hill property (Erf 255), which was sold to the municipality in 1987 by the Department of Public Works and Land Affairs, and on condition that it remains public open space. Further, if it does not remain Public Open space, it must be returned to the Department of Public Works. This provision is enshrined in the Title deed.

Further, in order to develop the proposed boutique hotel, it is required that the property be rezoned from “Single residential” to “General residential.” In addition, the applicant has applied for, and surprisingly been granted, the relaxation of, and/or departure from, numerous provisions and restrictions of the Zoning Scheme, most of which had been flouted in the original build. These provisions and restrictions include all of building line departures, height restriction departures, on-site parking requirements, coverage and bulk restrictions and restriction of minimum prescribed erf size for “general residential”, as well as others.

On top of all of this is a safety concern; this incomplete building is comprised mainly of unclad and unsealed reinforced concrete and has been exposed to the harsh coastal weather for more than three decades. In the current hotel development proposal, additional stories will be built on top of the existing weather-beaten structure. Although the developer has had engineers endorse their proposal, it is, as we have mentioned, in conflict with the court order to demolish the building. This safety issue is one that not only affects the developer, the investors and future residents in the hotel, but is one that must be a critical concern for the owners of the properties further down this steep hillside, as well as for public safety officials.

At this stage, the developer has started marketing the boutique hotel, although the sales pitch is silent on most of the issues we have raised here and on which over 300 people found it necessary to object.

And yet there are still a number of hurdles that the developer has to cross in terms of conditions that have to be met, including approval of their building plans and the registering of a servitude, but these are not mentioned in the sales pitch.

Finally, this development is not without alternatives – it is common cause that the eyesore must go, but the developer has received, and rejected, far more appropriate proposals to redevelop the site safely, with elegant residential units, which would not impinge on Signal Hill or title deed or zoning scheme terms, and would fit in with the ambience of the area.

The Ratepayers Association will continue to monitor developments in the best interest of the town. It will also continue to raise objections and highlight irregularities that ignore or contravene court orders, zoning scheme regulations, title deed terms, and established municipal and council procedures. It does this to ensure ordered and legal development of the town.

Plettenberg Bay Ratepayers’ and Residents’ Association

Aerial view of illegal structure on Erf 156 and The Signal Hill view site, Erf 255