Planners are drafting a new plan for Fraser’s Hill, an environmentally sensitive area. How should development proceed there?
FRASER’S Hill will get a new development concept plan soon. The Raub District Council, which oversees development in Fraser’s Hill, Pahang, has appointed town planner Iktisas Planners to come up with the plan.
The consultant told Macaranga they aim to finish the concept plan in November, and declined to comment more.
The new concept plan adds a new dimension to recent events that have focused discussion on how Fraser’s Hill, an environmentally sensitive area, should be developed.
In particular, some residents and concerned citizens are opposing the building of a hotel there which has been approved by the Council.
(Photo: The iconic clock tower greets visitors to Fraser’s Hill, a destination popular for its cool weather, nature and colonial-style buildings. Pic by : Pashmina Binwani)
A new hotel
Fraser’s Hill is a designated environmentally sensitive area, and the Fraser’s Hill-based NGO is concerned about heritage loss and environmental damage caused by the development.
The project sits on the original sites of a lodge and resort, both demolished in July to make way for the hotel.
Public concern mounts
The new hotel, Fraser’s Hill Resort and Spa, is owned and developed by iKHASAS Fraser Sdn Bhd and will be operated by Novotel, a brand owned by French hospitality giant Accor.
By 28 October, the petition had collected almost 15,000 signatures.
These reactions reflect concerns that large developments in Fraser’s Hill would erode the nature and heritage values of the place.
Hotel with benefits
The management of iKHASAS told Macaranga in an email that an international hotel brand would benefit Fraser’s Hill.
The project would give the township “recognition on the international map” and provide jobs for “future generations of Fraser’s Hill residents,” wrote iKHASAS.
The new hotel will feature 181 rooms with amenities, including a swimming pool and a ballroom, according to the developer’s website.
iKHASAS also emphasised that the development had been approved by the Raub District Council. The Council confirmed that the building plan was approved in February 2019.
Pause for review
Still, in late July, the Council issued a temporary stop-work order on the development.
The Council also instructed iKHASAS to revise the building design and to consult the Department of Environment on the technical aspects.
But iKHASAS had not submitted the design revision by the 31 August deadline, according to PAWBF.
This raises concern about the future development of the hill resort, as the Raub District Council goes ahead with a new concept plan.
Environmentally sensitive area
Under the Pahang State Structure Plan and the National Physical Plan, Fraser’s Hill is listed as an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) Rank 1 .
The National Physical Plan says that management of an ESA Rank 1 zone should prohibit development except for “low-impact nature tourism, research and education”.
In an ESA zone, developers must produce an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that presents – among other requirements – measures to address the environmental and socio-economic impact of developments.
No EIA needed
A source within the Council reportedly said an EIA was not required because the project sits on an existing site and does not involve steep slopes or land-clearing.
But scientists advise caution, particularly against the risk of landslides.
Landslides are common
Up to 22 shallow landslides have happened in Fraser’s Hill since 2017, said Dr Nor Shahidah Mohd Nazer, a Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) geophysicist who studies soil mechanics at Fraser’s Hill.
She told Macaranga that rapid development “would trigger a large-scale [slope] movement if proper precautions are not taken.”
The developers aim to complete the project over six years, a longer than usual construction period.
That slower pace “may be good for the clay soil to stabilise naturally,” said Shahidah.
But “the overall structure and stability will still be affected by the development”.
To reduce the risk of landslides, “the developer has to ensure that they have a rigid foundation” that touches “the bedrock even if it’s as deep as 50 metres from the surface,” she said.
The developers “need to ensure the bearing capacity of embedded piles in rock is there and not to bypass it,” said Shahidah, even if doing so means paying more to dig deeper.
For developments that are more than 10-storeys high, expanding the road width is mandatory to cater to a higher number of new visitors, said Dr Mohd Hariri Arifin, a lecturer of geophysics at UKM.
The constant wear and tear and building of the new roads may cause further landslides and trigger slope failure, he said.
And “once geology is affected, plants and animals will be affected”.
Too big for Little England?
Landslide worries aside, there are also questions about the impact of the development on Fraser’s Hill’s colonial-style architecture that gave the place the nickname of ‘Little England’.
How could a 15-storey hotel fit in?
The developer has actually promised the hotel will not be higher than the trees, said Nik Jasmin Hew from PAWBF.
“But the development will surely stand out because it is located on a hill.”
She contended that the hotel “is not fitting of the description ‘Little England’ and completely misses the point of how and why it should be developed in the countryside.”
Hew added that a popular birdwatching site nearby will be significantly impacted. The development would chase the birds away or worse – the birds might crash into the tall hotel.
Architect Ar. Steven Thang said that any large development risks failing to fit in with its natural or cultural environment.
But he added that, with a proper understanding of contextual design and placemaking, the Fraser’s Hill Resort & Spa could enrich the site beyond a mere tourist destination.
Thang is the Heritage Committee Chair of the Malaysian Institute of Architects.
“The key is to implement good design and building materials,” said Thang.
Solution in designs
He stressed that better design aligned with heritage and sustainability can lead to a larger visitor base, a varied revenue stream, and a higher property valuation.
“One principle is to avoid emulating all the existing heritage elements. Rather, architects should focus on unique aesthetic possibilities created through the juxtaposition of old and new,” Thang said.
He cited the walkways in Singapore and the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre as good examples of this approach.
Besides, why build on the hill itself? Thang added that it would be better to develop the new resort on Jalan Gap in Fraser’s Hill town, which is out of the ESA zone.
“Planning is important, and it must free up space for construction and foot traffic if it is a large-scale development.”
To best fit into Fraser’s Hill, he recommended that the new hotel be low-density and reduce its area by at least 30%.
Hew of PAWBF agreed that small-scale development, rather than mass-market tourism, would work better in Fraser’s Hill.
She suggested the hotel attract high-value clients by offering intimate experiences such as birdwatching from the hotel balcony itself.
Between nature and convenience
In August, PAWBF met with iKHASAS and presented other ways the new hotel could retain the flavour and heritage of Fraser’s Hill.
Particularly to reduce weekend traffic in Fraser’s Hill, one proposal was to establish a parking area at the foot of the hill for day-trippers and ferry them uphill via feeder buses. Another was to promote weekday special attractions.
In turn, the developer suggested that they pave the tracks of the existing hiking trails in Fraser’s Hill as part of their efforts to revamp the place, Hew recalled.
But she disagreed with this.
“It is okay to make the paths safe but to completely pave it is a complete no-no. Fraser’s Hill is not a place [to be] made for human convenience.”
“You’re there to have a taste of nature, not to make nature suit you.”
Since August, PAWBF and communities in Fraser’s Hill have been holding virtual town hall meetings and talks on how sustainable development can coexist alongside nature.
Their resistance continues as they share their concerns with decision-makers and await the revised hotel design.
As for iKHASAS, they emphasise that the new hotel would be eco-friendly. “Our project is not taking up any new areas of natural virgin terrain,” iKHASAS told Macaranga.
“After all, ‘eco-friendly’ is our theme such that we are careful not to disturb the existing environment.”
Charting the future of Fraser’s Hill
At time of writing, discussions and reviews of developments of the hotel and Fraser’s Hill itself are happening behind closed doors.
The online petition mentions a symposium in December that will discuss the potentials of Fraser’s Hill as a state park.
The symposium will be jointly organised by WWF and UKM and supported by Tourism Pahang.
In the meantime, a new concept plan for Fraser’s Hill will tentatively be completed in November.
Hopefully, the developers, planners and locals use this opportunity to showcase a sustainable way to develop environmentally sensitive areas like Fraser’s Hill.
[Edited by YH Law and SL Wong]
Contributing writer Pashmina Binwani (@B_Pash) is a visual storyteller who covers the environment and development.