Locals Face Rincón Blue Water for the First Time
Updated: Apr 1, 2019
If the developer does not change his plans to build a beachside hotel and casino in Rincón, community leaders say they are ready to fight him at every step of the process.
Last week, roughly 200 people converged at the Stella Community Center in Rincón on a rainy Monday evening to meet face to face for the first time with representatives of Rincón Blue Water (RBW), a proposed 206-room beachside hotel and casino that an Arizona businessman by the name of Lonnie J. Fuller aims to build in some of the town’s most prized real estate.
Per his spokesperson, Michelle Ramos Jiménez, Rincoeños learned that Fuller was interested in learning about their concerns with the development project but was unable to attend the event. Instead, Ramos Jiménez, a local attorney specializing in medical malpractice, would try to appease some of the community’s main grievances.
Right out of the gate, Rincoeños were not buying into the narrative that Fuller was willing to invest the total $48 million his spokeswoman estimated would be required to build Rincón’s biggest hotel and first casino, so they asked about his unnamed partners. In fact, the total investment would be in the vicinity of $56 million after accounting for the almost $8 million Fuller paid the local corporation Calrincon for the 7.2 acres of waterfront land where he plans to set up shop, according to a purchase and sale deed A Rinconvenient Truth obtained.
“That information, as I told you, is private. This is a privately financed project,” Ramos Jiménez summarily responded before reminding everyone that she was not in a position to disclose any of her employer’s private information.
Nevertheless, Lonnie J. Fuller seems to be the senior vice-president of construction for Horizon Hospitality Management, a hotel management company headquartered in Alpharetta, Georgia. In his corporate profile, he also claims to be the owner and manager of a construction company that has successfully completed numerous contracts as general or sub-contractor, including hotels, schools, and shopping centers throughout Central America, the South Pacific and the Caribbean in the last 30 years.
This construction firm appears to be Bluwater Development, LLC, which Fuller incorporated back in 2007 alongside Ian Smith in the state of Arizona, and has a striking similarity to the company he registered on the island in 2016 to handle his local ventures, Rincon Blue Water, LLC.
On its website, RBW claims to be “an innovative, sustainable hotel development focused on preserving our beaches and protecting the environment.” To these purposes, the developer adds it would evaluate the impact of the project on the local community, as well as tourism in the area. Yet, when the locals asked to see these studies, the spokeswoman said they needed to wait until the pertinent state agencies approved their permits – a move the community booed for its apparent lack of transparency.
However, renderings of the proposed hotel and casino are available from the architectural firm leading the design efforts, Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón (AD&V). Starting at the top, it shows a wide entrance from State Road PR-413, giving way to the tallest building in the hotel complex. According to AD&V’s architectural intern Natasha Yordán, the main building is projected to be seven floors tall, including the ground-level parking lot, and overlooks Puerto Bahía to the northwest and Vista Azul to the southeast. It houses the main lobby and casino, which Ramos Jiménez compared to Casino Atlántico in Manatí, which has 300 slot machines and six gaming tables. A second pool connects the main building to three additional beachfront structures that house the remaining guest rooms. To the west, distorted out of view, Rincoeños might recognize Black Eagle Road and its marina.
Its proximity to the beach prompted Itziabel Rosa Cardona, a local high school student and conservationist at Tres Palmas Marine Reserve less than a kilometer northwest of Fuller’s land, to raise concerns about RBW’s possible impact on the coral reefs and other coastal ecosystems in the area.
“All the sediments from these constructions that are so close to the waterfront are potential risks to Rincón’s ecosystem that sustains local tourism. It is useless to bring foreign investment with huge plans if the resources that they are going to exploit are already depleted,” she sentenced.
Bethzaida Bonet Tirado, a municipal legislator representing the Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP), worried about the public’s access to the almost 150 meters of coastline behind Fuller’s property. “How are you going to make sure that everyone here has access to Rincón’s beaches, which belong to you, me and everyone else in Puerto Rico?” she asked the architect.
Yordán replied that RBW will strictly observe the maritime zone, as determined by the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA) in accordance with section 30.2.2 of Puerto Rico’s Joint Regulation for the Evaluation and Issuance of Permits Related to the Development and Use of Lands, which requires all new waterfront developments ”…to dedicate, for public use, a strip of land of twenty meters of minimum width, parallel and measured from the maritime zone. In addition, permanent structures will not be erected in a strip of land of thirty meters wide, contiguous to the previous one.”
On March 19, the DRNA announced its intentions to the determine these limits at Fuller’s property. Since then, more than 200 Rincoeños have sent individual letters to DRNA’s chief, Tania Vázquez Rivera, and a similar number of letters to other public officials requesting a public hearing about this development. Concerned parties have until April 19 to send their own letters to Vázquez Rivera.
Knowing that state authorities are still repairing Rincón’s infrastructure a year and half after Hurricane María ravaged the island, others in the crowd doubted the town could cater to the needs of the hundreds of tourists that the hotel and casino expects to bring in every week, without costing the locals their access to water and power – services which are already scarce in some parts of this coastal town.
“The feedback we’ve been getting from the agencies is that they are well aware of the situation of the infrastructure in Rincón. Conceptually, we have two alternatives: we either improve the infrastructure that [the town] already has, or we get our services from a different source,” Yordán explained to them.
She added that even though the final plans have not been drawn yet, her team is considering the installation of solar panels on the complex. Her colleague added that RBW is willing to invest up to a $1 million to improve Rincón’s critical water, power and road infrastructure, but did not specify what those upgrades would entail, again, claiming that they have not received the necessary recommendations from local authorities.
A Rinconvenient Truth checked in with the Permit Management Office (OGPE) and found out that Roberto López, a civil engineer at the Benitez, Ramos & Associates construction firm, has applied for at least 12 different permits and endorsements on behalf of RBW with the Highways and Transportation Authority (ACT) and the Department of Transportation and Public Works (DTOP). These include applications for construction permits, and recommendations to infrastructure and environmental impact mitigation, two of which have been approved, according to Puerto Rico’s Single Business Portal.
This publication recently requested access to all of the information associated with this permitting process, which should shed some light on RBW’s specific plans for the site, even if they are not the final ones. Once OGPE approves the request, A Rinconvenient Truth will publish its findings along the most relevant documents.
Andrés Romeu Cotchett, a retired oceanographer who is rallying the community against RBW through the recently registered non-profit Salva Rincón, brought up what many in town consider was a deliberate filling of a swamp inside Fuller’s property, which he claims changed the ecosystem and killed thousands of land crabs during mating season last April.
Although Ramos Jiménez explained that RBW had nothing to do with the controversial move, which happened before Fuller acquired the plot of land, Romeu Cotchett stressed that knowledge of the illegal deed should have been enough motivation for RBW to complete a full environmental assessment of the area.
“The right thing to do in this case is a full environmental impact statement and not be hiding behind environmental permits. This process requires public hearing and as you can see, we’ll probably need a baseball field for that meeting,” he exclaimed referring to the amount of his neighbors that were present that night.
In response, Yordán claimed that the developer recently hired a local expert to study the site’s soil quality as required by the permitting process, but she refrained from specifying if the studies would reveal the impact that the illegal swamp fill had on the ecosystem’s flood resistance, which sits next to a creek.
On the topic of economic activity, Gloria Cuevas, a retired teacher, said she moved to Rincón about five years ago escaping from what she called “destruction of Old San Juan” by the cruise ships, hotels, and Airbnb’s. “Rincón has been one of the few municipalities with a balanced budget thanks to a terrific tourism industry driven by people who are trying to get away from that, and you want to bring just that to Rincón?” she asked the spokesperson, rhetorically.
Others were not completely opposed to the idea of a new hotel in town, but were flat-out against the casino. Their fear is that criminal activity, gambling addiction (particularly among the elderly), and the cost of living in Rincón could potentially spike if the casino were to be built. Although they pleaded with RBW to bump the casino off their proposal, the spokeswoman reiterated that it was a non-negotiable part of the business plan.
After hearing this, Oceanographer Miguel Canals Silander, who is also part of the Salva Rincón effort, exclaimed that “if they are not willing to significantly change the project and eliminate the casino, this is going to be a war. This is not personal, but we want to make it clear: We will not back down!”
Before closing the event, Gregory Ruiz (shown in the cover photo) demanded to meet Fuller, arguing that if he really cared about the community’s concerns, he would come answer the questions that were left on the table during a face to face meeting with Rincoeños. Although Ramos Jiménez said she was willing to meet with the townspeople, she did not commit to bringing her employer along.
At the monthly session of the Municipal Assembly, legislator Wanda Colón Caro, from the New Progressive Party (PNP), brought up some of the concerns discussed the previous night at the community center, and asked Rincón’s Municipal Administrator Francisco Mercado specifically about the mayor’s endorsement of the hotel and casino.
Mercado, on behalf of Mayor Carlos López Bonilla, explained that his office has only received an official notice from Carla Campos, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, in which she generally describes the project, but has yet to endorse the project or even meet with Fuller and company.