Lawmakers ‘concerned’ about planning changes

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Debate continued on sweeping changes to the
country’s Development and Planning Law and regulations
Monday in the Cayman Islands Legislative Assembly, with opposition and independent lawmakers threatening to vote against the measure.

“These are some serious changes in this law,” Opposition MLA Arden McLean said. “(Development) affects every living soul in this country.”

The two main areas of opposition to the new planning proposal centered around sections of the bill which would let future changes to the planning law be approved by Cabinet, rather than the entire Legislative Assembly. 

Also added to the bill was a section that allowed the Cayman Islands governor (meaning the Cabinet) to waive certain requirements under the planning law if “the public interest so requires”.  

“Whatever the executive decides is well said, well done and that’s it,” Opposition Leader Kurt Tibbetts said. “That is far reaching. I do not believe that the democratic process is served well.”

Independent MLA Ezzard Miller also raised concerns about the cost of new fees contained in the planning amendment bill, which he said would tack on some $130,000 to the cost of building a new 10-unit apartment building in North Side. 

“That’s a lot of money,” Mr. Miller said. “I think that it would deter some small, ten unit developments.”  

Proposed changes to the Development and Planning Law, if adopted by lawmakers, would relax
some rules for developers and aim to make the planning process faster and more
user-friendly for applicants.

The plan calls for
significant fee increases, particularly for developers working on new projects
in higher-density, upscale areas such as Seven Mile Beach, South Sound and
central George Town.

Among the many significant
changes are sharply increased daily fees for property owners who refuse to
clean up their land or deal with abandoned buildings.

Fines of $5,000 per day on
derelict properties are proposed for scofflaws under the new bill. The fine
rises to $25,000 in tourism centres where property owners have ignored Central
Planning Authority orders to clean up.

The law also introduces
measures that allow government to take individuals to court for ignoring
clean-up orders.

“We can no longer continue
to leave rubbish and abandoned buildings on our properties,” Mr. Bush said.

The proposals, drawn up by a
public-private sector committee led by local architect Burns Connolly, were
under review for nearly a year.

Mr. Bush said many of the
issues addressed in the proposed amendments have troubled the Cayman Islands
for a long time. He said government sought to address delays and difficulties
in the process that led some developers to simply “give up” on projects in the
past.

But with improved services
come higher fees, a proposal for which the premier said he expected to “take
his licks”.

“I can see the headlines
that people complain,” Mr. Bush said. “Well, I could see why some developers
will complain. “But good development is going to continue to come here, and
there are some things we are going to have to chase away.”

Other proposed changes
include a reduction in distance requirements for development of certain
commercial projects. Currently, builders have to “poll” everyone within 1,500 feet
of a development prior to obtaining planning approval. Formal objections to the
development can slow or even halt projects.

The polling distance is shortened to 1,000 feet under the
new proposal.

The bill also would extend the time on planning permits
from one year to five years to allow enough time for building inspections and
other requirements. Right now, Mr. Bush said, some permits are expiring before
all the regulatory work for a property is completed, forcing planning
applicants to re-apply.

The bill also requires appeals of planning board decisions
to be heard within six months and allows applicants to recover attorneys’ fees
from parties who file appeals that are deemed “frivolous or vexatious”.

Under the proposal, changes to planning regulations would
need to be approved only by Cabinet. Currently, they must be brought before the
full Legislative Assembly – one of the few government regulatory documents that
has such a requirement.

Planning definitions have been changed in the bill to
include ‘planned area developments’. These are 40-acre or larger properties of
‘mixed use’ – typically meaning both residential and commercial.

Mr. Bush said some effort has been made in the amended law
to minimise the effects of these larger developments on the surrounding
community.

Also, planning permission would be formally required for
interior development of a building that changes the use of the property or
which has some impact on the surrounding environment. Mr. Bush said this has
been informally enforced already, but that government wants to cement it within
the law.

Fees increased

The planning law and regulations section separates Cayman
into three specific development areas, referred to as ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’, with
‘A’ being the highest density or more costly areas and “C’ being the least
expensive or least developed areas.

Under the amendments, certain areas along the coast of
South Sound in George Town have been added to the ‘A’ planning areas, along
with the Seven Mile Beach corridor and central George Town. Infrastructure fees
for those upper-echelon areas of the Islands are now set at $2.50 per square
foot.

The amendment bill, if approved, would change
infrastructure fees assessed based on type of development.

As an example, for newly built industrial buildings and
single-family homes in the ‘A’ areas, the proposed law would not change the
current $2.50 per square foot infrastructure fee. But for houses larger than
5,000 square feet, the fee would increase to $3; for institutions it would be
$3.50 and for commercial buildings, such as hotels and condos, it would go to
$4.50 per square foot.

Similarly in the ‘B” category areas, the $1.50 per square
foot infrastructure fee would go to $2 for a 5,000-square-foot-house, and $2.50
per square foot for an institution, hotel or other commercial development.

New development in the ‘B” areas would also pay a single,
one-time charge to support the country’s affordable housing projects.

Mr. Bush said ‘C’ development areas would not have an
increase in their 50-cent per square foot cost for new construction.

“Government was careful not to impact the local developers
across the Islands at this time,” Mr. Bush said.

The premier said the increased fees are not only meant to
help support affordable housing, but also infrastructure projects required as a
result of new development.

“The developers have to expect…when you go and build a
building that is built next to the government administration building, that is
going to have a huge impact on roads,” he said. “Now, we have to go and spend
$2 million to fix the roads?”

The
government is also proposing staggering the planning fees for projects so that
only 50 per cent of the fees would be due “up front” – when blueprints are
submitted for approval. Mr. Bush said he hoped this would allow developers to
plan better for upcoming costs.

According
to figures presented Friday at Legislative Assembly, applications for new
construction in Cayman were down significantly in 2009 compared to previous
years. However, Mr. Bush said he didn’t believe Cayman had “missed the boat” with
regard to collecting on development.

“Cayman
will go through another phase of development, and this time we must be ready to
get from it…more than we have in the past,” he said.

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