The final sections of the National Conservation Law, including a legal requirement for threats to the environment to be considered in planning decisions, came into force Monday.
The newly implemented legislation also includes provision for the National Conservation Council to require developers to carry out an environmental impact assessment at their own expense for certain major projects.
The implementation of Parts 5 and 7 mean that nearly three years after its unanimous approval in the Legislative Assembly, the full National Conservation Law is now substantially in effect. Since the law passed the House, the Department of Environment and National Conservation Council have been working behind the scenes to put the infrastructure in place to ensure it can be carried out effectively.
Environment Minister Wayne Panton said the milestone marks a significant step for Cayman after more than a decade of debate about conservation legislation.
“We are a country that has no natural resources in the form of minerals or anything else,” he said. “Our environment is our national asset and we are now protecting it in the best and most responsible way we can.”
Input on planning decisions
The new sections of the law give additional weight to environmental considerations when government agencies, including the Central Planning Authority, are making decisions.
Mr. Panton said it “gives statutory legs to what was previously a gentleman’s agreement.”
However, he acknowledged that planning officials frequently approve applications despite advice from the Department of Environment to the contrary.
And while he believes the new law will compel more serious consideration of such advice, he acknowledged that could continue. “Can we say the advice won’t simply be ignored? No, we can’t,” he said.
Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Department of Environment, said the law is not a “panacea for all of our development related ills.”
She added, “We still need proper planning and development legislation and we must take steps to put in place development plans that actually mean something for the country.
“Without those tools, the National Conservation Law will not be able to stop some of the more egregious decisions and actions that are being taken in terms of development.”
She said the law puts the environment on an equal footing with other considerations but does not confer any extraordinary powers on the conservation council and would not necessarily stop decisions being taken that could be viewed as anti-environment.
One area where the National Conservation Council will have decision-making power is for applications on and around protected land. The law creates the legal framework for the creation of protected zones, which would fall under the jurisdiction of the council.
Ms. Ebanks-Petrie rebuffed concerns that this could negatively impact the value of surrounding land, suggesting in most jurisdictions, proximity to green spaces increases land values.
On the sometimes controversial topic of environmental impact assessments, she said the law gives the National Conservation Council new power to require that such studies are undertaken in some cases.
She said this is a power that would be used sparingly and only for major development where the “baseline data” did not exist to assess the environmental impacts accurately.
Under the law, developers will be required to fund such environmental impact assessments themselves.
For example, the Ironwood golf resort development, which was approved in June by the Central Planning Authority despite a recommendation from the DoE that an environmental impact assessment take place, could have been compelled to carry out the study if the law had been in place at the time.
The National Conservation Law is now fully implemented, with the exception of two clauses, which officials say are still being worked on and do not affect the substance of the law.
The Marine Conservation Law, which was in place to protect the marine environment, has been repealed now that the provisions have been transferred to the National Conservation Law.
Mr. Panton said the new law provides a guiding framework that is flexible enough to protect Cayman’s marine and terrestrial environment for generations to come.
The new sections, implemented Monday, also include a new licensing regime for spearfishermen, allowing them to import replacement parts for their spearguns, and moves the licensing of other activities, such as lionfish culling, under the new legal framework.