According to a letter to the editor from Environmental Minister Wayne Panton which appears in today’s Caymanian Compass, the National Conservation Law will affect only Crown land – an estimated 6 percent of all property in Grand Cayman.
“There is absolutely nothing in the proposed legislation that lets government take people’s land to make protected areas, not even for private land adjoining government land that gets made into a protected area – NONE. There is absolutely nothing in this bill that gives government the power to prohibit people from altering, developing or using their own land,” Minister Panton wrote.
Mr. Panton admitted this week that the law had been “watered down” to the point where it was a “ghost” of its former self.
His remarks were echoed in another letter published today from Carla Reid, chairman of the National Trust of the Cayman Islands: “ … the bill does not impose any restrictions on private land owners nor does it grant the government any power to interfere with land held privately. On the contrary, the bill is designed to protect environmentally significant Crown land. In fact, under the bill, any participation by private land owners to conserve their land is completely voluntary and not an obligation.”
The law establishes a National Conservation Council with a role, described as “advisory,” on privately owned land. What the law does do is allow the new council to buy or lease environmentally important areas from willing sellers to establish protected zones. For example, the legislation would enable the council, using cash from the Environmental Protection Fund, to buy or lease the rest of Barkers in West Bay and establish the area as a national park, protected under the legislation.
According to John Bothwell, senior research officer for the Department of Environment, only then would the council’s power to control or veto private land development come into play, for example if the National Roads Authority wanted to build a highway through the park.
He said the law, in particular the restrictions on development, would change very little for the vast majority of people in the Cayman Islands. He said it was essentially enabling legislation that would allow government more scope to create environmentally protected zones on its own land, to buy land for that purpose and to protect endangered and endemic species.
He said the major impact on private property owners would be that the planning authority would be required to consult the council in an advisory capacity before giving the go ahead to any project – something that effectively happens on a voluntary basis now.
“Currently, when development proposals are received by Planning they are sent to the Department of Environment for review. The National Conservation Law enshrines that process in Law and substitutes the Conservation Council for the Department of Environment.”
He said the National Conservation Law would not affect the ability of an individual to sell their land, even if the land is home to a menagerie of listed plants and animals and even if it is being sold to a developer for total clearing.
He accepted that some environmentalists may see the law as not going far enough.
But he insisted: “It is a small step forward that we don’t have now. It enables us to set up areas like Barkers and designate them as protected.”
One narrow area in the law that could be cited as an exception to the broad statement that private land owners will not be affected is a clause that appears to allow the council additional powers in cases involving “a protected area or on the critical habitat of a protected species.”
Section 41 of the law includes a clause referring to projects on this type of land, which gives the Council power to insist an authority “refuse to agree or proceed with a proposed action.”
By definition protected areas would need to be on Crown land. The reference to the “critical habitat of a protected species” is more ambiguous.
Mr. Bothwell said the definition of “critical habitat” required it to be a specifically designated area of land established in a species management plan. This could potentially include some privately owned land. But the law requires a public consultation process and Cabinet approval before this can happen – something he said was unlikely to occur over landowner objections.