The only thing being constructed on Saline Beach right now is a small sand castle, designed by four-year-old Cheyenne Palma-Tinghir. It's a hot Sunday in January on the French West Indies island of St. Barthélemy and as Cheyenne works away, more people arrive to tan and swim.
"It's a treat to come here," says Cheyenne's mother, Cécile Tinghir, who has lived on St. Barth for nearly a decade. "People like it because it's wild," she says, looking up at the craggy, dusty hills, which are dabbed with the green of cactus and other hardy vegetation.
But that wildness could soon be tamed, and sand castles won't be the only structures being built at Saline if a well-known New York hotelier has his way. André Balazs, the man who owns chic and design-focused hotels such as the Chateau Marmont in L.A. and the Standard in New York, wants to build an eco-lodge a stone's throw away from the beach.
"It will ruin it," Tinghir says. "Really ruin it."
On an island with a reputation as a laid-back French getaway with good food, fine wine and a certain je ne sais quoi, the demand to develop far outpaces local desire and the Balazs project has become a flashpoint.
"The greenest, most advanced eco-lodge can't compare to the natural greenery of Saline," reads the editorial in the latest edition of Pure, an island magazine. "It is the last unscathed spot in St. Barth … a symbol of the island's uniqueness."
Many people, it seems, agree. Twelve hundred names filled a petition that landed on the desk of Bruno Magras, the President of the Collectivity of St. Barthélemy. For now, the straight-talking St. Barth native, whose roots date back to the mid-17th century, gives the impression this project is far from a done deal. Revoking Saline's protected status requires approval from the island's 19-member council. Then, Magras says, the islanders themselves would decide the fate of Balazs's project in a referendum.
"At this point, the fact is he cannot do anything with it," Magras says.
This issue typifies the debate over development on the island, home to nearly 8,500 permanent residents and second home or vacation destination for thousands of others, among them the rich and famous, from Beyoncé to Dustin Hoffman to Steve Martin. The important question for all: how to preserve the uniqueness of St. Barth while still nurturing its sole industry, tourism.
The irony is that half a century ago, this rich gem in the Caribbean was dirt poor and barely on the map, a place with no running water, no electricity and seemingly nothing to offer.
"It used to be an island with 5,000 donkeys and one car, and that was owned by the Roman Catholic priest," jokes David Matthews, the charming British owner of St. Barth's most famous hotel, Eden Rock. "Now, it's an island of 5,000 cars and one donkey."
Things started changing in part thanks to Rémy de Haenen, the man who built the hotel Matthews and his wife, Jane, have spent years renovating. Local legend, former politician, daredevil pilot, the late de Haenen was the first to land a plane on the island and is credited with helping to bring in electricity and telephone service.
In the 1950s, de Haenen's Eden Rock welcomed the big names of the jet set - Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes, Robert Mitchum. Around the same time, another big American name was attracting attention. Millionaire David Rockefeller snapped up three prime pieces of property and began vacationing here with his wealthy friends and colleagues. People in the U.S., France and Britain started paying attention, paying visits, and paying very little for their own parcels of land. The St. Barth residents, who remain the majority landholders on this island, sold lots that would be worth millions of dollars today for mere thousands, using the money to better their lives and send their kids to school.