The newly appointed National Conservation Council will hold its first meeting, in public, Wednesday as the process of implementing the historic and controversial legislation moves forward.
As progress is made on bringing the full law into effect, some developers expressed concerns Tuesday that it could still be used to slow or block major projects.
Environment officials say a series of amendments to the law passed last December ensure this is not the case, and that the council’s role is largely consultative.
Christine Rose-Smyth, chair of the council, said the aim of the meeting, scheduled for 2 p.m. at the Government Administration Building in George Town, is to establish operating procedures for the council and to begin to put in place the administrative “infrastructure” that will enable the full law to come into effect.
The National Conservation Law includes legal protection for endangered and endemic species and their habitats, and mandates consideration of the environment on planning issues.
The agenda for Wednesday’s meeting includes discussion of responsibilities to be delegated to the director of the Department of Environment and the adoption of the “guidance notes” – essentially an instruction manual that includes specifics on when and how various government departments are required to consult with the council.
The council will also discuss proposals about what type of projects will require environmental impact assessments and how these studies are handled.
The moves towards full implementation of the law appear to have stirred some opposition to certain sections of the legislation, which was heavily amended before being passed in December of last year following complaints from landowners that it risked affecting development.
Now several developers have expressed renewed concern that, despite those amendments, the law could still be used for that purpose.
Sammy Jackson, an attorney who represents several developers, said it is concerning that the meeting was not more widely advertised. He said it is important that the public has a chance to see the documents under discussion, suggesting they should have been published along with the meeting agenda in the government’s official Cayman Islands Gazette.
Ms. Rose-Smyth said the documents will be available to the public at the meeting. She said responsible developers have nothing to fear from the new council.
“We are a diverse group, and our members are fully aware that opposition and concerns remain, especially in the development community. We are trying to work to allay those concerns,” she said.
“The role of the conservation council is to promote the protection of the environment while ensuring responsible and sustainable development.”
Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Department of Environment, said her department’s role remains, in most instances, purely consultative. She said the department already prepares reports and makes recommendations on planning applications and would likely continue to do so under the new law.
“This is something that has been done for a long time. It is just that now there is a legal obligation for those government entities to do the consultation.”
She said the law does not give the council or the Department of Environment any power to stop development. “I think the law is very clear about the role and functions of the National Conservation Council,” she said. “It is meant to be about trying to achieve sustainable use of our natural resources and protection of our natural environment.
“The various amendments that have been added to the law have ensured that while the environment is considered in decision making, it is by no means the only consideration.
“The detractors of the law would have us believe that it is going to usurp the authority of the CPA [Central Planning Authority] and other government bodies, and that is clearly not the case.”
The only time the National Conservation Law has any outright decision-making power is when a project, for example a road, is proposed in a protected area. Currently, no protected areas exist – they would have to be established by the council following broad public consultation.
Ms. Rose-Smyth said Wednesday’s meeting, and the first few months of work for the council, will focus largely on administration. This will include setting up how meetings are publicized and which documents are published.
A large part of the work will go toward ensuring the procedures are in place to implement the full law when it is enacted by Cabinet.