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Monday Mar 04, 2013

Simon's Town historians set against property development

Simon's Town's rich and varied history includes the 18th century development of a farm in the heart of the modern urban area opposite the naval dockyard.

David Erickson at the heritage site that he claims that was damaged by developers in Simon's Town.

Now archaeologists have started a preliminary investigation of one of the erven on which this farm was established in 1749, and their findings will be key to a decision on how much of this deeply historical landscape may be conserved, and what parts may still be lost under a housing development here that has already been approved in principle.

The site is Erf 4053, awarded as an apartheid land restitution order to claimants, siblings Mogamat and Farida Davis, who immediately sold it on to would-be developer Double Flash Investments 90 for R5 million in May 2006. It has since changed hands again.

An old photograph of Erf 4053.

At the end of last month, before a site development plan had been approved, a team from the current owners went in and started illegally clearing part of the site, which included ancient walled terraces that may have been a vegetable garden supplying fresh produce to Dutch East India Company ships during the 18th century.

This was three days after a letter had been issued by the City of Cape Town warning that several conditions had to be complied with before any work started, including the pre-approval of a construction plan, a site environmental management plan, and a heritage plan.

Using an excavator, the workmen caused serious damage, including the demolition of an historic retaining wall, and bulldozing one of the historic terraces where ancient Japanese guava and the mulberry trees were destroyed, before urgent "stop work" orders were served by the City and Heritage Western Cape.

An extract from the 1890 Admirality Plan of Simons Town.

The workmen also uncovered some potentially important artefacts, including bits of human bones, glassware and pottery shards.

"There were some particularly nice decorated ceramics which look like Chinese plate. I'm sure there's a wealth of interesting stuff under here," says David Erickson, spokesman for the Simon's Town Historical Society.

The society believes the site is an important element in the naval town's long and extensive history, and that losing it to development before a full archaeological survey has been completed would be "a criminal shame", he explains.

The current owners of the property, Vincent Knight and Jeffry Wain, concede that sending in the workmen was a mistake, and that they had not recognised the historical importance of the site.

Wain explains that they only took transfer of the property less than two months ago, and says they made "an honest mistake in good faith", for which they've apologised.

"We were led to believe by everybody, including the engineers, who were part of the process to get permission that we could start with the civils (clearing work). We are not the kind of people who will go in and chance our arm," he said.

Wain says their final development plan will be informed by the archaeological findings, and that they don't have a time-frame they're working to.

"Everything is flexible. It (our development) is a totally different animal to what was previously proposed.

"We want to get the right people in so that we can preserve the heritage of the site.

"We still need to sit down and decide how to tackle the site development plan... We just want to do it properly and with as little fuss and stress as possible," he says.

First prize for the historical society would be the roll-out of a 2007 proposal by local architect John Newton, The Conservation and Beautification of Simon's Town Lanes, that was subsequently developed in detail by postgraduate students from UCT's School of Architecture. Unfortunately, it has no official status.

"This plan could be a win-win situation," says Erickson.

"Part of those presentations covered the sensitive conservation of Erf 4053 as a public open space for the benefit of residents and tourists - conservation that would preserve the sense of place in a natural peaceful setting.

"Local feeling is that this plot should be conserved as a place of peace and beauty for future generations, and not bulldozed and concreted over."

Heritage Western Cape chief executive Andrew Hall confirmed that archaeologists had been appointed, and had started a preliminary investigation. This would determine whether more detailed work in the form of an excavation would be required, which would also require a permit from the agency, he explained.

"Once that investigation is done, we'll be able to make an informed decision on exactly what basis the proposed (development) work might or might not proceed."

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition)

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