$6 million allotted for land conservation

The National Conservation Council has welcomed the allocation of $6 million from the Environmental Protection Fund to buy up land to create protected areas.

The appropriation sparked debate in Finance Committee on Tuesday, with some legislators opposed to allocating money for as yet unspecified land purchases.

Though the fund, levied from travelers passing through the airport, was set up with the intention of buying environmentally sensitive land, particularly Grand Cayman’s central mangrove wetlands, it has rarely been used for that purpose.

Environment Minister Wayne Panton, speaking during Tuesday’s Finance Committee hearing, said he could not say which properties the National Conservation Council had recommended for purchase at this point as it depended on negotiations with owners.

He dismissed fears raised by North Side legislator Ezzard Miller that government could use a compulsory purchase mechanism to force people to sell.

He said once the money was allocated, the council could finalize its recommendations and negotiations could commence. He said buying up environmentally important land to protect for future generations was one of the primary purposes of the Environmental Protection Fund and governments worldwide routinely made such purchases.

He said the international “rule of thumb” was for countries to aim to protect 15 percent of land within their borders.

Of the $6 million, he said, “This amount reflects several proposals from the National Conservation Council in respect of land they have identified as being of significant environmental value …. There are no inked or signed agreements in respect of the properties. It wouldn’t make sense to disclose where the properties are at this point.”

Christine Rose-Smyth, chair of the conservation council, confirmed the law only allows for the purchase of land from willing sellers and government could not use its powers to force sale, as it can with road projects.

She told the Cayman Compass, “On behalf of the Conservation Council, I am delighted that a sum has been appropriated in this budget from the Environmental Protection Fund for one of the principal purposes of that fund, acquisition and management of protected areas, as provided for in the National Conservation Law.

“The law’s nomination process is open and transparent and requires evaluation according to strict criteria, landowner consultation and involvement at every step and, ultimately, agreement with Cabinet. There is no possibility for compulsion in the law. If a landowner is not willing that her land be purchased by the Crown, the council is not permitted to make any recommendation.”

During Tuesday night’s debate, North Side MLA Mr. Miller raised concerns that any purchases would likely be in his constituency, saying “everything else has been destroyed.”

Mr. Panton said there was no focus on any specific district and the council would be seeking to find land of environmental significance.

East End Legislator Arden McLean suggested the proposal was too vague and that government should not allocate the money until more specific plans were in place. Mr. Panton said it would be impractical to come back to Finance Committee for every negotiation.

The appropriation was approved over the objections of independent legislators Mr. Miller, Mr. McLean, Winston Connolly and Alva Suckoo.