The National Conservation Bill was slowly moving toward a vote on Thursday afternoon as legislators continued to wrangle over the potential impact on private property rights.
Government was contemplating some amendments to the proposed law, designed largely to address concerns of those who fear it could be used to take people’s property for conservation purposes.
The nature of those amendments had not been finalized at press time, with the precise wording of the legislation likely to be fine-tuned in the committee stage.
Enough members spoke in favor of the bill to suggest it would comfortably pass into law, with a vote expected late Thursday or on Friday. The Progressives alone would have enough numbers to get the bill through, and with independents Winston Connolly and Roy McTaggart also indicating they will back it, there appeared to be little chance of a defeat.
Amid a fractious debate there were moments of levity, with East End lawmaker Arden McLean taking the unusual step of tabling a large chunk of an Ironwood Tree in an effort to “teach” Environment Minister Wayne Panton what one looked like.
Mr. McLean suggested people in his district had historically been good conservationists and were now being made to pay for excess development elsewhere on the island.
Earlier in the debate, Ezzard Miller, the independent MLA from North Side, said he did not believe the repeated assurances from the environment minister that the law would not be used to take people’s land through compulsory acquisitions.
He said if the bill was passed it would be a “day of rejoicing for conservationists and a day of lamentation for landowners.”
He added: “They’ve destroyed Seven Mile Beach, West Bay and George Town, and now they want to come up to North Side and acquire people’s land to get an Ironwood tree to show their grandchildren.”
Mr. Connolly, an independent legislator for George Town, said the concerns of landowners could not be ignored. But he said the draft amendments being proposed by the environment minister, which were not shared with the press but are understood to be designed to soften some of the language of the law in relation to negotiations with private land owners, helped deal with those issues.
“This is by no means perfect legislation. It could have adverse effects, but we don’t know that. We have to have the faith to take the first step and correct any missteps down the road.”
Mr. McTaggart, another legislator for George Town, said “scaremongers” had had a field day with the legislation. But he insisted it would be good for the country and good for development, describing it as an “early Christmas present for the people of the Cayman Islands.”
Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell endorsed the legislation, saying it was important to the industry, citing a Cayman Islands Tourism Association survey that showed nearly 90 percent of businesses in favor.
He said: “There will always be a need for infrastructure and development. This will ensure that any proposed project is designed and built thoughtfully in a way that is sustainable.”
Finance Minister Marco Archer quoted from scripture and from a homework assignment about preserving natural resources by his 9-year-old daughter – both of which he said had inspired in him a conviction to back the legislation.
Earlier, Minister Panton claimed, as he has done repeatedly in the run-up to the debate, that the law could not be used to take people’s land.
“I do not believe anyone can maintain any basis for an argument that this bill includes any provision for acquisition through some kind of mandatory process under the Land Acquisition Law.”