‘Park land’ purchase in Barkers foreshadowed conservation bill

Nearly a decade ago, the Cayman Islands government purchased private land in the Barkers area of West Bay to create a national park.

However, according to Department of Environment Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie, the designation of the Barkers park land acquired by government has never moved forward, partly because there was no existing legislation to create such a public space.

According to records reviewed by the Caymanian Compass, some $1.3 million was paid out of the government’s Environmental Protection Fund – one of the few uses of that fund in the past decade – for the purchase of one of two large properties in the Barkers area.

The purchase, according to Ms Ebanks-Petrie, did not occur as the result of a compulsory acquisition under the Land Acquisition Law [1995 revision].

“It was a negotiated process,” Ms Ebanks-Petrie said. “[The law] could’ve been used, I think it could have been used, but it wasn’t necessary. I don’t think there was any intention to compulsorily acquire it.”

Financial Secretary Ken Jefferson confirmed that the expenditure of $1.3 million in 2004 out of the environmental fund would have required the approval of either the Legislative Assembly or the assembly’s finance committee.

Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush, who was Leader of Government Business at the time, said government reacquired that particular tract of land from a family that had it taken from them at some point by the local government.

“[That property] got bound up in the whole Cadastral Survey issue in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s,” Mr. Bush said, recalling that a number of families had land returned to them after that survey was done. The Barkers property was returned to its original owners around that time.

“Some people had more difficulty [getting their land back] than others,” Mr. Bush said.

In 2004, government purchased the Barkers land “because we wanted Barkers to be a national park and not a ‘natural park’,” Mr. Bush said. “Gina [Ebanks-Petrie] wants that [area] to be wooded and people couldn’t do anything with it.”

In essence, the land purchase in 2004 was completed under a similar, although informal, negotiation process that the proposed National Conservation Bill now envisions, Ms Ebanks Petrie said. The Department of Environment director said the mere passage of the bill does not guarantee that anything would occur with Crown land in Barkers, because it would still have to go through a public review process and ultimate approval by Cabinet.

Debate around the potential for government to seize private land for conservation uses has raged over the past few weeks as government seeks to bring a “watered down” version of the National Conservation Bill to the assembly for approval next week.

A planning lawyer said a week ago that the bill would allow government, for the first time, to take private land for the “public purpose” of conserving plants or species on it.

However, Environment Minister Wayne Panton and Ms Ebanks-Petrie have both said that, in their view, the Land Acquisition Law could have been used for such purposes long ago.

It has been relatively rare, at least within the past 10 years, for the Cayman Islands government to access the environmental reserve funds for any purpose.

By the end of June 2014, it is anticipated there will be $47 million in the fund.

According to Finance Minister Marco Archer, the Environmental Protection Fund has been used four times between 2004 and 2013.

In 2004, government spent a total of $1.9 million in a land acquisition in the Barker’s area of West Bay and on a Seven Mile Beach “renourishment project.”

In 2005, more than $13 million was spent from the fund for debris removal following Hurricane Ivan, which struck Grand Cayman in September 2004.

According to records provided by the finance ministry, there have been no disbursements from the Environmental Protection Fund since.