An overhaul of the planning department and updates to the Development Planning Law are anticipated to speed up the planning application process and give the Department more powers to stop unauthorized developments.
Acknowledging complaints of long wait times for planning approvals, Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts told the Government’s finance committee that a temporary measure that saw the hiring of four contract workers to address the approvals process backlog will have met its objective by the end of June.
While the Central Planning Authority reviews planning applications that involve major projects, zoning variances and objections, the Planning Department is responsible for administering routine planning applications.
Mr. Tibbetts revealed that the results of a departmental audit will be submitted later this month, which will provide valuable data on how to improve efficiency from staffing and technological standpoints.
The committee heard that the difficulties associated with planning applications lay in the outdated zoning on the islands, which leads to many applications going to the Planning Authority to have variances approved.
Consequently, perceived delays were in fact due to the non-routine nature of a significant number of the applications, which then had to be heard by the CPA.
Planning Director Kenneth Ebanks said the Department is developing draft amendments to the Development Planning Law, which will put forward new zoning regulations easing the backlog significantly.
However, he said he did not intend for the Department to begin dealing with contentious projects, which would still be put before the CPA.
The law and its supporting regulations are based on the Cayman Islands Development Plan, a policy document that is supposed to be reviewed and updated every five years.
The Development Plan outlines the broad planning vision for all of the country’s planning concerns including zoning, setbacks, roads, environmental areas, locations for schools and health care facilities.
Mr. Ebanks told the committee he hopes the amendments the Department is proposing can be present to the Central Planning Authority to begin the process of introducing new legislation that is anticipated to coincide with Parliament’s next meeting this summer.
The amendments will also give new powers to the Department with respect to unauthorized construction, an ongoing concern.
Mr. Ebanks told the committee that the Department relies on its staff to monitor building projects they are aware of, and if they do come across illegal activities, they are expected to report their concerns to a compliance officer who then further pursues the matter.
By Mr. Ebanks’ own admission, ‘the enforcement process is long and convoluted.’
While the aim is to nip illegal building projects in the bud, the Department is not always successful due to its inability to act quickly enough and its lack of powers.
Mr. Ebanks cited a recent North Side case where enforcement notices on an unauthorized project were ignored, and when the Department took action and bulldozed the buildings, the project was rebuilt.
At present, the Department can require a builder to stop an unauthorized project through an enforcement notice issued by the Central Planning Authority.
The builder is then offered an opportunity to file an application for planning permission for the project through the proper avenues.
If the party nonetheless proceeds with the project, the Department can issue a stop work notice but cannot physically prevent construction from continuing.
Currently, penalties are so low that they are not an effective deterrent. ‘We need to change the relevant law and have more serious penalties,’ he said.