Updated 11:50 a.m. Friday: Premier Alden McLaughlin announced Friday that government had reached an “agreement in principle” to buy land on the northern side of Smith Cove from the private owners of the parcel.
The premier did not name a specific price, but said funds for the purchase would be drawn from government’s Environmental Protection Fund and that the land would be declared a public open space for use “in perpetuity for the people of these islands.”
“This is a straight up sale,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “We just need to arrive at what the dollar figure is.”
Original story: Government is negotiating to buy the land on the northern side of Smith Cove in an effort to forestall a condo development, following public opposition to the plan.
The proposal to build 24 two- and three-bedroom apartments on the land adjacent to the main public beach has caused public outcry.
Since the plans were revealed Monday, nearly 3,000 people have signed a petition in an effort to stop the development, while a Facebook group called Save the Cove was quickly established to contest the plan.
Vandals daubed the word “Resist” in spray paint on the road outside the property on Wednesday.
The National Trust of the Cayman Islands has added its voice to the opposition, calling Smith Cove “a beloved area of great historic and cultural significance,” and urging the Central Planning Authority to consider the importance of the land when it reviews the application.
Premier Alden McLaughlin, speaking in the Legislative Assembly on Thursday, said Planning Minister Kurt Tibbetts had opened negotiations with the developer in hopes of buying the property and preventing the development.
“It is hoped that over the course of the next few days, we will be able to provide some good news regarding government acquiring the property,” he said.
The premier said the only deal previously on offer for government to acquire the land from former owner Dart Realty would have involved giving up some public rights of way to Seven Mile Beach, which was not an option for his government. He said there had been no separate opportunity for his government to buy the land from Dart.
Mr. McLaughlin, who said he had grown up swimming and spearfishing in the waters off the Barcadere, said government would now attempt to do a deal with the new owner.
“This government were as concerned as the public regarding what would be a change to an area that Caymanians and residents have enjoyed for years and had considered, particularly the seafront and rock outcroppings, as part of the Smith Barcadere public beach and the Smith Barcadere experience ….
“Government intends to continue to make every effort to acquire this property in an effort to keep Smith Barcadere, all of what we know as Smith Cove, available to Caymanians, residents, visitors and future generations in perpetuity.”
The application to build on the property was made by TFG Cayman Ltd., which is listed in the land registry as having bought the property from the Dart group for US$4.25 million in September last year. Michael Joseph, of Bronte Development, which is behind the plans, said earlier this week that the group was “taking a step back” to consider its options following the public outcry. He had no comment on the premier’s remarks Thursday afternoon.
Mr. Joseph, on behalf of the developer, previously sought to assure people that the condo complex would not affect public access to the rocks and other areas in common use.
Despite those assurances, the plan caused considerable public concern.
Taura Ebanks, a vocal advocate for protecting Smith Cove, said any development on the site would change the nature of one of Cayman’s most popular public spaces. She said other developments, particularly along Seven Mile Beach, have shown how public access has slowly eroded over time, even when developers began with the best of intentions.
She said she hoped government would hear the public outcry and successfully negotiate a deal to buy the property and preserve it for public use.
“We need to speak loudly and speak together against this plan,” she said. “This is one of the few public beaches used by all nationalities, cultures, locals, residents and visitors. It is a place where everyone comes together.”
An event is being planned to celebrate and protect the beach on Oct. 29, she said.
Morne Botes, who started the Save the Cove Facebook page, said he set up the page as a platform for people to get information and express their opinions about the project.
“As a resident of Cayman, I take my kids to Smith Cove at least once a week,” he said. “I never wanted to start a movement or protest against a fellow developer, as I myself am a property developer. I merely wanted to make the public aware about what was happening. Not surprisingly, I found many voices that want to object to this development and the government’s inaction regarding this national treasure, Smith Cove.”
Premier McLaughlin, in his speech to the Legislative Assembly, rejected suggestions, including in a Cayman Compass editorial, that his government had passed up the opportunity to acquire the land from Dart.
He said the deal on the table from Dart – part of the proposed third amendment to the National Roads Authority Agreement – had involved potentially trading the property for some public rights of way through Dart’s properties on Seven Mile Beach.
“I wish to emphasize that the two considerations were linked,” the premier said. “That is, government would give up public future access rights along a large area of Seven Mile Beach through property owned by Dart in exchange for other property owned by Dart that could become a new proposed public beach, including the property next to Smith Barcadere.
“There was neither consideration nor was there ever an offer by Dart to independently and/or separately sell the land adjoining Smith Barcadere to government without government first giving up the public rights of future access along Dart properties along Seven Mile Beach.”
He said negotiating away public access to beaches was a non-starter for his government.
“Too many of our people over the years have fought to ensure that the public access rights remain protected and this government is not going to change that” he added.
Opposition leader McKeeva Bush told the Compass he would have done a deal with Dart to acquire the Smith Cove land. He said government could have acquired the land, as well as 20 acres in West Bay for public use that would have included a cemetery, and another piece of land near the Harquail Theatre and a building for a new Sunrise Adult Training Center.
“They were all in the mix to get something for the country,” he said, indicating he would have been willing to trade two public rights of way through Dart properties on Seven Mile Beach to acquire the land.