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This biodiversity stewardship project aims to provide formal conservation protection for the area of the Rhenosterspruit Nature Conservancy, and beyond. 

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Golf estate developer sues opposing neighbours for defamation

The following article appeared in Pretoria News about the case against residents of the Rhenosterspruit Nature Conservancy. 

THE multimillion-rand lawsuit by Wraypex against four residents who opposed the development of a luxury Blair Atholl township - a 330-house luxury estate, including a Gary Player-designed golf course - has started in the Pretoria High Court.

Mervyn Gaylard, Helen Duigan, Lise Essberger and Arthur Barnes are each being sued for between R45 million and R50m in damages for alleged defamation stemming from their fight against the development.

The development is north-west of Joburg and borders the Cradle of Humankind world heritage site, near Lanseria Airport.

Wraypex claimed in court papers that the four in 2004 wrongfully and with the intention to injure the developer, published false and malicious statements concerning it.

These included that it did not comply with the legal requirements regarding the development, that it did not submit a comprehensive environmental impact assessment and that the developer did not hold a public meeting to address the concerns of the interested parties.

Wraypex said these "defamatory" statements were made to a Tshwane town planner. The four implied by these statements that Wraypex acted illegally, that it was dishonest and acted deceitfully or fraudulently, the developer said.

Wraypex claimed that its good name and reputation had been injured and that the necessary statutory approvals were delayed as a result of these statements.

Rudolph Jansen, acting for the defendants, in his opening statement to Judge Stanley Sapire, said this is a so called Slapp suit - strategic litigation against public participants. It is litigation where well resourced developers sue individuals to ensure that they "back off".

The four defendants had the right to voice their objections to the development and they did nothing wrong, the judge was told.

Jansen said one must distinguish between defamation and criticism. People invited to take part in the public process of voicing their concerns regarding developments should be allowed to do so, he said.

This case is expected to set a precedent regarding the rights of interested parties who challenge developers in a bid to protect the environment.

Gaylard, a chemical engineer, testified that he and his wife in 1995 moved to the area as it was underdeveloped and they preferred country living. The area is one of the most beautiful in Gauteng with natural vegetation and rivers.

The Rhenosterspruit Conservancy Association was established, aimed at conserving the beauty and natural habitation of this area.

Residents first became aware of the golf estate development by word of mouth, he said. They later saw notices erected in the area, inviting objections to the proposed development. Gaylard and his wife lodged their objection to the town planner's office in Centurion.

They also attended a public meeting at the former home of Gary Player. This meeting was not very successful, he said, as it was first held under a tree, with no seats.

It then moved into what he thought was a bedroom in the house, which was too small to hold all the people. A second meeting was later held at a nearby business premises.

Gaylard said he mainly objected to the development as a golf course took up a lot of water and because he specifically bought his property as it was away from developments.

He and the other residents felt that the golf course was at odds with the area, while the developer was of the opinion that it was sensitive to the environment, the court was told.

In spite of their objections, the developer got the go-ahead to proceeded with the development.

Gaylard and the others intended to lodge an appeal and were told they had 30 days to do so.

No development was due to take place during this time.

Gaylard said in spite of this the developer went ahead in developing the area. He wrote a letter to the Gauteng MEC for Agriculture, Conservation and Environment, Khabisi Mosunkutu. The MEC confirmed to him that 'illegal activities' were taking place, in that the development went ahead at that stage.

The developer was given an oral warning and ceased operations.

Gaylard said he wrote in his letter there were illegal activities going on at the site as the developer went ahead, but never uttered the words he is now being accused of. These words were in a letter to the MEC and it was never made public. "I was in my right to say what I did. I was registered as an affected party and had certain rights," he said.

The parties are expected to conduct an inspection in loco today.

Pretoria News