(CNS): The court decision in the judicial review of the dispute between the National Conservation Council and the Central Planning Authority has not changed the balance between development and conservation in favor of the environment. Despite inaccurate claims made by some developers, the jugement only confirmed the NCC’s existing powers to make orders in very limited and specific circumstances, which to date have been used in less than a quarter of one percent of development applications.
“Since the National Conservation Act was unanimously passed by Parliament in 2013, the NCC has always been able to direct government entities to refuse a proposal that could negatively impact a designated protected area. or critical habitat of a protected species,” the NCC said. Chairman McFarlane Conolly told CNS. “What the ruling has clarified is that government entities, including the Central Planning Authority, who choose not to follow these instructions are acting unlawfully.”
Although many Cayman Islands conservationists fear that current laws will still tip the scales well and truly in favor of development, the court ruling has fueled a wave of misinformation on social media suggesting that development is now somewhat threatened.
Eden Hurlston, a local environmental activist and member of Amplify Caymansaid that overdevelopment and culturally and ecologically irresponsible planning and design had not been stopped by the Conservation Act and that this latest decision did not change anything.
“Development is, and always has been, heavily tilted in favor of developers,” he told CNS. “Even with the Conservation Act, there is no way to stop bulldozers from demolishing mangroves or to stop the CPA from granting waivers on high water mark setbacks that lead to projects unsustainable.”
He added: “When it comes to planning requests, there really isn’t a balance between development and conservation, even when that’s what people have said they want. As the public calls for more environmental protection and an end to this unsustainable situation, especially to protect mangroves and beaches, the more concrete seems to be poured.
Hurlston, like many activists, thinks the Conservation Act does not go far enough and that we need to radically change our approach to development, especially given the climate emergency we face.
“We need to stop giving concessions to luxury developers and use that money for the public good, to acquire remaining coastal land and create green jobs with beach parks, replant native flora and stop erosion,” he said. Hurlston said. “We should have stiff penalties for illegal removal of mangroves, siltation of the reef, or unsuitable lighting for turtles. In all planning and design decisions, at every turn, we want the cultural, economic and ecological needs of the people of Cayman to take priority over the profit motive of developers, without exception. »
The outcome of galloping development was a central question in the election 2021, but so far little has been done to stop development. Very few of them are truly sustainable and some ministers even support development in the Central mangrove wetlands. Just this week, the Department of Finance revealed it had raised more than $18 million than expected in stamp duties, as the unsustainable housing boom continues to fuel more developments that encroach on dwindling natural resources .
As the government acquired more land to officially place under official protection, reaching 11% of the land mass of the three islands this year, the reality is that more and more private land that had remained undeveloped is now being sold to developers. While the experts say we must aim about 30% land to be protected, instead, to meet the demand of wealthy foreign investors and guest workers seeking properties to obtain points of permanent residence, more and more intact primary habitats are threatened with being cleared.
Speaking on Radio Cayman on Friday, Prime Minister Wayne Panton said land acquired by the government and placed under official Cabinet protection cannot be developed. But the NCC has no power outside protected areas, and even within protected areas its powers to restrict development are limited within the limits of the planning law.
The NCC can direct planning or other competent bodies only when critical habitat located in a protected area or supporting a protected species is threatened by a non-compliant planning request. Thus, when a prospective project is planned by the sea, even in a marine park, unless the proponent proposes crossing the setback from the high water mark or removing the iron shore, the NCC cannot order the APC to refuse the building permit.
The NCC’s power is limited to direct threats to habitat or protected species that cannot be mitigated, as was the case in the Boggy Sand development application that was at the heart of the court case. The NCC’s decision that the CPA should deny planning permission was made because the project proposed to demolish an already failing structure, which now sits in the sea, in a marine park, and build a new one. bigger.
Plans included no retreat of the high water mark and no way to rebuild safely or without directly risking marine habitat on the same footprint. Therefore, as there was no possible means of mitigation, the NCC gave its direction.
Speaking in the Cayman Compass on Tuesday, and mirroring posts on social media and WhatsApp groups over the past few weeks, Dale Crighton, of Crighton Properties, hinted that the government could face litigation if the new interpretation of the law impacts on land values. However, there was no new interpretation of the law.
There have been no changes to the ability of beachfront property owners to build luxury condos or any other projects, provided they comply with applicable planning laws. No right of ownership or right to develop has been impaired, as suggested by Crighton, who himself has been the subject of significant criticism for the FIN Project in South Soundwhich was built very close to the ocean and caused a number of environmental concerns during its construction.
Still, Crighton noted that the DoE is making sound comments about the apps and wanting things to stay as they are. “In my experience as a developer, the DoE and other departments usually provide thoughtful feedback, and the planning certainly ensured that their feedback and recommendations were taken into account,” he said.
The DoE, on behalf of the NCC, reviews most planning applications and provides detailed scientific commentary on projects, offering advice to landowners on improving their developments, making them more sustainable and helping to protect properties. coasts against storms and floods.
Conolly explained that of the 3,094 applications that have been reviewed since 2016, the NCC has imposed approval conditions on only 62 applications, which represents 2% of all applications reviewed.
“The number of times the NCC ordered the denial of a development request is even lower: the NCC only ordered the denial seven times out of five requests. This represents 0.23% — less than a quarter of 1% — of all applications reviewed. In the limited cases where the NCC ordered denial, these requests involved adverse impacts on protected areas or critical habitat of protected species that could not be mitigated,” he said.
In most cases, even when virgin habitat or critically endangered species, such as banana orchids or silver culms, are endangered, the NCC cannot actually stop development.
Learn more about the Conservation Act, the real powers of the NCC and the judicial review decision on the NCC website.