AGUADILLA, Puerto Rico – The sun had just risen along Puerto Rico's northwest coast when Paul Schmidt hopped off his surfboard and emerged from the water at Wilderness Beach, ending another session at a remote area that draws surfers from around the world looking for the next big wave.
That day, he and only about 20 fellow surfers shared waves reaching more than 10 feet high. But Schmidt and others worry that the days are numbered for this slice of rocky beach ringed by mangrove forest and palm trees, with not a store or house in sight.
Developers and local officials eager to improve the economy want to transform the area into a more traditional tourism destination, bringing a hotel and villas to a place largely untouched since Christopher Columbus landed nearby on his second voyage to the Western Hemisphere.
"It's an untouched gem that hasn't been built up, which is just remarkable to begin with," said Schmidt, a 31-year-old from Rockaway, New York, making his annual extended surfing trip to Puerto Rico. "So many places like this have been ruined by big resorts and people trying to make money off of something so beautiful and so pure."
Battles between development and preservation have long played out worldwide. But the stakes are especially high here because Puerto Rico has already lost so much of its once lush coast in the boom-and-bust economic cycles that have defined its modern history. Wilderness Beach and its surroundings, which provide habitat for endangered coral and sea turtles, is a place where many on the island, not just surfers, want to make a stand.
"Everyone assumes we're here defending the beach, but it's not just the beach. It's the biological diversity that exists in this valley," said Edgardo Gonzalez, among more than a dozen protesters arrested in recent weeks for trying to block bulldozers that have begun clearing land near the town of Aguadilla.
More than 22,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that the $200 million project dubbed the Christopher Columbus Landing hotel be halted until new environmental impact studies are done and more public hearings are held for a development originally approved in the mid-1990s. The director of the Puerto Rico agency that awarded those permits did not return calls for comment.
Environmentalists sued this month to halt the project. They argue it will affect a turtle nesting area, threaten public access to the beach known locally as "Wildo" and generate runoff that could kill at least three species of coral on the endangered species list. They also question the validity of the permits issued and note that several hotels in the area have closed or remain empty, including one recently built by the municipality itself. A judge who reviewed the petition initially ruled they were not specific enough about potential threats, but scheduled another hearing for next week.
"Why can't they just make this a state park?" asked 53-year-old Doug Lake, a surfer who moved from Los Angeles to Puerto Rico nearly 30 years ago. "Utilize what's naturally available. They're walking past the obvious."
The protests and ongoing legal fight frustrates Aguadilla Mayor Carlos Mendez, who said the project will create up to 700 jobs and boost tourism, which has become a critical source of income and employment with Puerto Rico's economy mired in a deep recession for about a decade.
"Right now it's so hard to get to that beach," he said, noting the developer plans two access roads to replace the single dirt road that leads to it. "We're going to open it up so everyone can enjoy it."
It's a vision that appeals to Jose Mendez, a 53-year-old Aguadilla native who lives near the development. He said he's hoping for a boost in real estate prices for his blue-collar neighborhood and seeing street lights installed through the project, among other things.
"This will bring progress and work," he said as he worked on a dilapidated car and gestured toward his teenage son, whom he hopes will find a job at the hotel. "None of the protesters live here. They don't know about our daily struggle."
Puerto Rico developer Reinaldo Vincenty said he plans a 300-room hotel and nearly 100 villas in the project's first phase. He will develop 50 acres (20 hectares) of the 126 acres (51 hectares) he owns and build an ecotourism park on another 96 acres (39 hectares) featuring a zip line and food kiosks.
Vincenty said he will wait on original plans to build a shopping center, casino and condo-hotel given the economic crisis.
He said he originally expected to open the villas in August, but ongoing protests have delayed construction by at least four months. He also stressed he does not plan to close access to any beaches or surfing spots.
"I'm building this hotel so thousands of people can visit," he said. "I want the entire world to get to know Aguadilla."
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