Officials at the Department of Environment are still trying to unravel the implications of a move in the Legislative Assembly that appears to cut them out of the loop on development in the Sister Islands.
A private members motion, brought by Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush and supported by a majority of legislators, called for the establishment of a “Brac environment oversight committee” to oversee a controversial plan to excavate a smelly, saltwater pond and turn it into a marina for visiting yachts, adjacent to the Alexander Hotel.
The motion also stipulated “all such projects in Cayman Brac be given similar treatment.”
Quite where that leaves the Department of Environment, which was the subject of scathing criticism from Mr. Bush in his remarks in the legislature last Thursday, is unclear.
No one at the department could clarify what its role would be in overseeing development on the Brac in the future or how the motion would affect the process established under the National Conservation Law for environmental oversight of development in the Cayman Islands.
The marina project, which involves cutting a channel through the reef inside a marine park, drew strong objections from the DoE, which warned that the project was so demonstrably damaging that an Environmental Impact Assessment would not be worth the money. The department’s technical review committee listed a slew of issues, including the loss of a turtle nesting beach, damage to the reefs and dive sites from sediment, and an increased risk of coastal flooding.
Despite those concerns, government gave tentative approval to the marina plan after the developer said the hotel would close if the pond smell was not dealt with.
The Dilbert family, which owns the Alexander Hotel, has been given permission to excavate the pond but must wait for the result of an Environmental Impact Assessment before proceeding with plans for a 100 foot wide channel connecting it to the ocean.
That position has not changed, and Mr. Bush’s motion was approved only after a government amendment specifying that an environmental impact assessment would still be necessary for the Dilbert project.
In ordinary circumstances, Cabinet would convene an Environmental Assessment Board, made up of DoE staff, planning officials and other technical experts, to assess the credentials of the company carrying out the assessment, set the terms of reference for the study, and provide technical support to the consultants.
According to the motion, oversight of this and other projects on the Brac will now be in the hands of a yet to be formed Brac environmental oversight committee, made up of people with “local knowledge.” The motion specified that the board must be set up and have dealt with the marina project application within eight weeks.
Describing the marina project as a “beacon of light” for the struggling Brac economy, Mr. Bush said the people of the island should not be “pounded into the ground” because of “environmental likes and dislikes.”
He said the DoE’s concerns, particularly about turtle nesting in the area, had “no merit” and suggested environmental officials were “knowingly using wrong information” to block the project.
He said, “We can’t save a dozen birds and let people here in Cayman Brac suffer.”
“There are good people on this island that knows enough about the environment that they can make enough good judgment to safeguard it – they’ve done it in the past and they can do it again,” he said.
Premier Alden McLaughlin offered support to the motion once a clause was included requiring an environmental impact assessment on the marina project.
He said, “It is not being reckless or not having regard to environmental concerns that led us to approve this project in principle against the advice of the Department of Environment, but because of our stark realization that if something radical is not done, we are going to have a much bigger problem than what many of the environmentalists think with respect to the Brac.”
Moses Kirkconnell, the tourism minister and Sister Islands representative, said the marina would have a huge socioeconomic impact on the Brac.
He said it was important to “move the roadblocks out of the way” but insisted a study was still necessary to mitigate any environmental impacts.
“We are all in agreement to this, we have to be user friendly. This member wants the project to go forward.”
He said he had “complete confidence” in the Dilbert family and praised their track record for environmentally friendly development.
There was no discussion of how the members of the Brac environmental oversight board would be chosen, what level of expertise would be required, or what its role would be in future developments. Environment Minister Wayne Panton, who spoke in support of the amendment requiring an environmental impact assessment but not on the motion itself, did not respond to calls from the Compass this week.