Thursday, April 30, 2009


Urban edge, land swap and water issues

- Judy Maguire -

On Monday, 6 April, there was a Spatial Development Framework (SDF) information meeting at the Klaarstroom Community Centre, chaired by two Councillors from the Prince Albert Local Municipality, Mr April Pienaar (ANC, Deputy Mayor) and Mr. S Botes (DA, Speaker) and led by Mr Tinus Scott of Terraplan, who is employed as a town planning consultant by the Municipality. The main issue under discussion was the location of the ‘urban edge’, a line drawn on planning maps indicating the confines within which service delivery by the municipality is due, rates and taxes are paid, and within which town development may be permitted to occur.

The proposed urban edge document was made available for comment by being lodged for inspection with the Municipality, with a two week response period, presumably dating from 6 April. Those present seemed to be generally satisfied with the proposal although there was hot debate and several vehement objections.

A serious defect appears to be the lack of a heritage component in the SDF document for Klaarstroom. Section 31 (1) of the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA) instructs that when revising its zoning, town or regional planning schemes or spatial plans (e.g. the SDF and Integrated Development Plan or IDP), a local authority “must investigate the designation of heritage or conservation areas”. Without such provision being made, it is unlikely that the documents will receive approval at provincial level. The NHRA section 30 (5) also states that the local authority “shall compile an inventory of the heritage resources which fall within its area of jurisdiction’. For Klaarstroom, no start on such an obligation has yet been made. The same situation pertains in Leeu-Gamka.

Two years ago, a senior Heritage Western Cape official briefed the Municipality regarding its legal responsibilities with respect to the NHRA (29 March 2007), but it would appear that these have been forgotten or overlooked. Klaarstroom is a small heritage-rich Karoo town dating from 1763, which could easily lose its significance and authenticity should inappropriate or out-of-scale development occur.
Another issue which was raised was the proposed ‘land swap’ – the swapping of a substantial piece of communally owned ground or ‘meentgrond’ for two or three alternative patches of ground belonging to a local farmer, Mr. H van Meersbergen. The meentgrond is valuable prime real estate stretching along either side of the picturesque Grootrivier flowing through the town. A considerable part of this will be swapped for two patches of agricultural land adjoining the township urban edge adjacent to the township ‘uitbreiding’ for possible use as vegetable gardens, while it has been said that the farmer has plans to develop the meentgrond and contiguous areas of agricultural land along the river towards the ruins of the historic wool-wash, as well as within the portion of land between Poort Pourri and the first houses (40 housing units were mentioned at the meeting; there are only 15 houses in Klaarstroom at present).

An additional small piece of vacant ground between existing houses (occupied by a substantial and eroded drainage way) will also form part of the swap. Large-scale or insensitive development in the sensitive and visually conspicuous meentgrond area (some of which is within the floodline restriction) could irreparably mar the historical and cultural landscape of Klaarstroom. No definite proposal has been submitted to the Municipality as yet, although the planned ‘development’ has been mentioned in a SDF planning document.

Mr September, who arrived after the meeting had started, assured the reporter that the Municipal Council was ‘still considering’ the land swap issue, and that no decision had yet been made. This may well be the case, but Mr Tinus Scott had earlier presented plans to the meeting showing the land swap already in place, and it would seem that behind-the-scenes negotiations (ongoing since October 2006 or even earlier) have already created a fait accompli – without a proper public participation process. In any case, the reporter has been able to ascertain that a decision to pursue the land swap has indeed been taken by the Municipality. What is being traded are communal rights and a proper fully inclusive public participation process including transparent exposure of all the issues at stake should have been instigated from the outset. This is a requirement of law. It is no use initiating such a process after decisions have already been taken – the whole point of public participation is that the public are given a part in the decision-making process.

Bungling the public participation process combined with closed-door tactics has given rise to rumours of private agendas on both sides, which appear to have riven this small community into warring factions, a situation which could have been avoided by transparency.

Furthermore, even though the land-swap process has not yet reached finality, Mr van Meersbergen has cleared the meentgrond of its grove of poplar trees. A Department of Landcare source insists that she had been informed that the grove was on the farmer’s property and not on Commonage. Presumably the Municipality, as the local authority in charge and custodian of Municipal assets, gave Mr van Meersbergen permission to eradicate the meentgrond trees. One wonders who in the end benefited from the sale of the forest of poplar logs, the best of which were removed from the property by a contractor from George. A Kei Forestry Services technician confirmed that the stumps had not been treated with herbicide as required by law, and untidy coppicing and stump-sprouting is already occurring (logs, more than permanent clearance, appear to be significant). Expensive and regular applications of foliar spray over a 5-10 year period will now be needed and it is to be wondered who will foot the bill for this. Roots from thousands of new suckering saplings will further stress the wetland.

The meentgrond was a significant source of fuel wood for residents, who were unhappy about the loss of this communal asset. Many of the less valuable logs and debris remained. Logs and chopped wood floating downstream after the recent floods (March 2009) caused log jams at the nearby Eerste Drift and Opmetingsdrift which caused severe flooding of the N12.

The then Acting Municipal Manager, Mr Edwin September, was witness to the felling and denied having given permission to Mr van Meersbergen or anyone else. The Municipality nevertheless failed to take a stand and the trees were felled without a public process of any kind having taken place. This has left an inescapable impression that either the Municipality is too weak to stand up to civil disobedience - even if the perpetrators break the law - or else they condone it.

Another issue that was discussed was water and sustainable development. Klaarstroom is presently supplied by two boreholes situated in the meentgrond, one of which has a dysfunctional pump. The boreholes are close to each other and presumably tap the same aquifer. The other borehole cannot cope with the town’s demand. The water is brak and residents complain of intermittent problems with discolouration, odour and taste. The Municipality then paid Mr van Meersbergen R94 000 to commission a borehole on his property, and for servitude rights. The borehole is sited below a large farm dam and probably benefits from under-dam flow. It is situated within a wetland and there are ecological considerations for this, especially as the supply will have to cope with a town with a 2% population growth rate. There is a waiting list of 120 houses, and an informal settlement has been allowed to develop adjacent to the N1.

However, a water licence to abstract groundwater still has to be obtained, along with numerous other legal and practical assurances such as water quality, sustainability, recommended abstraction and recharge rates, etc. The water pipeline has not yet been laid, and the town is still drinking meentgrond water. The injunction to supply a stand pipe and tap for every dwelling (including squatter camps) will stress the scarce supply still further. This was accomplished in Plettenberg Bay and Knysna with the result that the water ran out – communities were left with taps but no water.

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