Sunday, September 19, 2010

Petrol station fuels dorp's anger

Graaff-Reinet's residents vow to fight planned super Shell garage

Sep 19, 2010 12:00 AM | By BOBBY JORDAN 

Nobody complained much about the occasional truck creeping down Parsonage Street in sleepy Graaff-Reinet.

SHELL OR HIGH WATER: Johan Minnaar is one of the Graaff-Reinet residents objecting to Shell's plan to upgrade a station in the town Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
SHELL OR HIGH WATER: Johan Minnaar is one of the Graaff-Reinet residents objecting to Shell's plan to upgrade a station in the town Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
But a plan to turn the street corner into a platteland petrol oasis has sparked a fierce row between a global energy company and residents of one of the country's oldest towns.
Shell is pushing ahead with plans to upgrade and expand an existing service station in the middle of the historic Eastern Cape town, which townsfolk say will blight the dorp's heritage status . Billionaire Johann Rupert, whose family trust owns and preserves much of the town, which boasts over 400 buildings older than Johannesburg, offered to buy the station in a bid to resolve the dispute.
Residents' objections and the municipality's offer to move the garage to a larger site outside the town have come to nought.
Shell wants a "local commercial hub" with four pump islands opposite the town's famous 200-year-old Drostdy Hotel and right next to the John Rupert Theatre.
According to a final environmental impact report, of which the Sunday Times has a copy of the executive summary, the proposed new garage will include an ATM, a Shell Select shop and tourist centre.
"We don't need those trucks there. It is probably the most important street in Graaff-Reinet," said Deon Herselman, trustee of the Rupert family's Reinet Trust. "Mr Rupert actually offered that he is prepared to buy that (garage) from them and develop it into a tourist information area. But they don't want to sell," said Herselman.
Graaff-Reinet, which doesn't even have traffic lights and has a heritage society that encourages homeowners to preserve the old-world style of the homes, was a much-loved retreat and pet project of Rupert's famous father - the late Anton Rupert, founder of the Rembrandt Group and a conservationist.
Anton made special provision in his will for the scenic Karoo town of his birth, including a clause to protect the character of the Drostdy Hotel - which could soon have front-row seats to what some of have termed an "environmental disaster".
The company's application coincides with Graaff-Reinet's recent award as South Africa's top municipality. The town is due to host a national heritage symposium next month.
Increasing traffic through the town now literally threatens the fabric of the historic binne dorp, according to some residents. "These places don't have proper foundations; there should be no trucks in Graaff-Reinet," said Christa Hahn, a member of the local heritage society.
Architect Peter Whitlock said the boundary wall of the town's NG Kerk had twice been damaged by passing vehicles. A structural report into the state of the wall suggested heavy vehicles may threaten old foundations, although no scientific study had been done, Whitlock said.
The Sunday Times has seen a copy of a letter to Dutch Queen Beatrix - a major shareholder in Royal Dutch Shell - from a concerned resident appealing for help.
Shell, however, insists their new garage is largely an attempt to comply with environmental health and safety regulations. The multinational company this week denied its garage would pollute Graaff-Reinet's unique ambience. Company spokesman in South Africa, Elton Fortuin, said: "In response to the concerns expressed, we have specifically added noise-buffer walls and adapted the site's design aesthetically to blend in with the surrounding cultural heritage of the town. We have also suggested a tourist centre at the service station to boost tourism for the local community."
He added that the garage required an "urgent overhaul" .
Shell did not, however, endear itself to the pretty Karoo town during an apparently botched public relations campaign that included a woeful first environmental impact assessment, shot down by objectors, and a whistle-stop visit by South African chairman Bonang Mohale.
The final environmental impact report has been submitted for approval to the Eastern Cape provincial government, along with a long list of objections.
Among the recommended mitigation measures against noise pollution are "more sound proof" windows in the adjoining Rupert theatre and signage requesting garage patrons "to keep their vehicle audio systems at a reasonable level".
But residents have vowed to take Shell to court. "We are fed up with this issue," said Johan Minnaar, chairman of a residents' committee set up to counter Shell. "What is here in the town is not just our heritage - it is the national heritage."
Roy Stauth, another prominent Shell objector and former University of Cape Town academic, said Shell was holding the town's tourist future to ransom: "We see our future as tourism. That Shell garage is at the heritage heart of our town, the only discordant element."
Said Minnaar: "This is about taking responsibility. We could end up looking like Beaufort West."

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