A public meeting held at the University College of the Cayman Islands Wednesday revealed the construction of a new road through a patch of pristine forest may not in fact take place this year, if at all.
Minster of Works Arden McLean expressed his convictions that the road segment, connecting Walker’s Road to the new arterial roads from West Bay and the Eastern Districts, needs to be built in order to service the area that features a number of existing and future educational institutions.
‘I’m not trying to frighten anyone, but the construction of all our new roads, including the East-West arterial and the West Bay Road bypass will be for naught if we don’t find a way to bring people in here where all the institutions are,’ said Mr. McLean.
‘At present, where the West Bay and East-West arterials come together there is no way now to redistribute the traffic.’
Area schools include John Gray and George Hicks High Schools, Cayman Prep and St. Ignatius Catholic School, as well as UCCI, itself home to 3500-plus students. Once the new John Gray campus is built, the George Hicks campus will become a technical school.
Opponents of the road’s construction say the road will have a negative impact on George Town’s last remaining Ironwood forest which contains rare plants and trees and is considered a site of natural heritage.
Mr. McLean outlined the government’s predicament in satisfying demands to move the road around the northern perimeter of the Ironwood forest and reduce the number of lanes.
‘If you took the road through the current proposed path we would save 90 per cent of where the endemic plants are. It is going to cost the country mega, mega bucks to move the road, current estimates have it adding $5 million to the cost,’ he said.
The government does not have sufficient funds in this year’s budget to make the changes, so if the decision is taken to change the road’s path, the construction will not go ahead this year.
Attendees, including affected landowners whose properties will be impacted by the road’s construction were urged to present government with a solution to preserving the land.
McGregor Yates, sporting a shirt reading ‘Ironwood forest not for sale reduce reroute road,’ stated he would rather the road not go through at all.
‘But if we need to have it would prefer to see it a two-lane road on the north,’ he said.
Mr. McLean said those concerned about saving the forest should note moving the road would still not protect the land if it remained in the hands of private landowners.
‘Just remember if you want this preserved you have to do it right. You can’t leave it in the hands of private individuals as there is no guarantee that they will not develop by future generations,’ he said.
‘If we are concerned about the next generation we will need to protect it by law and through the constitution.’
Mr. McLean proposed that landowners sell affected parcels to the government, which could then hand them over to the National Trust.
Another audience suggestion that the landowners sign an agreement with the National Trust themselves was also welcomed by those in attendance.
Mr. McLean noted that when UCCI wanted to expand in 2003, the National Trust successfully lobbied the government to stop the project and preserve the land from development in perpetuity.
Captain Paul Hurlstone said his land has been in his family since 1831 and he has personally no plans to develop it, while neighbour Richard Flowers said that though his family has also not developed their parcel since 1731, he would now be establishing a trust on his own to ensure its long-term preservation.
‘I will keep our promise and protect that parcel that we own,’ said Mr. McLean.
‘But I am guided by the people of this country – if they do not want this road at all, we can remove this project from our plans and wipe it off of our minds.’
Mr. McLean stressed he was only doing what he felt was in the best interest of the country, and that finding alternate solutions to traffic flow if the road does not get built will cost the country in the future.
While the session’s discussions were centred on preserving the Ironwood forest, it appears the project has acted as a catalyst in raising the growing concerns arising from rapid development in Grand Cayman over the past 30 years in general.
A number of those in attendance, including NRA board member Peter Milburn, broached the wider issue of tackling traffic congestion in other ways, including limiting the number of cars per family, making downtown George Town a pedestrian-only zone, and improving public transportation.
‘We have other options to look into – please put that particular piece of road on hold for now,’ he said.
Local activist Denny Warren held past decisions to account for the current crisis.
‘What we are dealing with here is that we are struggling with the consequences of poor planning,’ he said.
‘Traffic is only one issue that has come about as a result – how are we planning to develop our country?’
Mirroring the sentiments of other audience members, he criticized the decision to house the technical school on the George Hicks campus, noting it would only serve to increase congestion.
Leader of Government business Kurt Tibbets, who was also in attendance, conceded the situation was not ideal but was necessary for cost reasons.
‘We will need to build more primary schools, and we need this new technical school to fit into our education plan – housing it at George Hicks only makes financial sense,’ he said.
Mr. Tibbetts was adamant that he wanted an agreeable resolution to the Ironwood forest controversy.
‘Government has no interest in destroying the forest, nobody should fear us going behind people’s backs and building it,’ he said.
‘Sometimes the government has to make tough decisions and all points this evening have been valid. We need to make decisions that are as right as possible, and we are not here to get into a war to push the road through.’