Uh oh. Just when the Cayman Islands government put a lid on popular outrage over the proposed development of land abutting Smith Cove, a new set of construction plans for property in Barkers could reignite public emotions.
Though the specific details vary between the Smith Cove and nascent Barkers controversies, the fundamental issue is the same.
At root, both situations involve privately held undeveloped land that the community values for its pristine condition, that successive governments have targeted for “protection” and “public use,” and that, nevertheless, government has never actually gotten around to protecting, or making public.
In the case of Smith Cove, the land in question had been owned by a series of private entities, including until last year, the Dart Group.
McKeeva Bush’s United Democratic Party government had attempted to acquire the property from Dart but failed to finalize the deal. When Alden McLaughlin’s Progressives took control in 2013, the government took that land swap off the bargaining table and never offered to acquire the land from Dart in a stand-alone agreement. Last September, Dart sold the property to private group TFG Cayman Ltd., which with Bronte Development submitted the condo development proposal that caused the public outcry. In response, the Progressives talked TFG and Bronte into selling the land to the government, using money from the Environmental Protection Fund to pay for it.
In the case of Barkers, the property has long been owned by Cayland Group Ltd., a private entity which has proposed building a 49-room development with a bar and a pool. That sparked calls from the Department of Environment for government to forestall the development by purchasing the property, again using monies from the Environmental Protection Fund.
Although the fund does contain what appears to be a formidable amount of money — nearly $60 million — that balance will evaporate rapidly if the government repeatedly pursues the strategy of “buying under duress.”
Additionally, what happens if the government encounters a private developer who is less charitable than TFG/Bronte, who refuses to sell their property to the government and who intends to exercise their lawful right to develop their property as they see fit, regardless of how many people may become upset at the loss of (or loss of public access to) a natural beauty spot?
In regard to the Smith Cove situation, we laid the bulk of the responsibility at the doorstep of this Progressives government — because they had chosen not to take advantage of a previously identified opportunity to acquire the land from Dart. In regard to Barkers, the blame can be spread around to several different governments over the past two decades.
As we noted in Wednesday’s front page story, officials have touted the idea of a “Barkers National Park” since the 1990s. They even enticed Britain’s Prince Edward into participating in a christening ceremony for the imagined park in 2003, and have put up signs calling the area a national park — even though, of course, it is not. (Rather, the area is owned by various interests, including government, Dart, Cayland and several other private entities.)
While many people use and enjoy the area, Barkers has been consistently plagued with litter, potholes and criminal activity — indications of government disinterest and neglect.
Bringing the matter home to this Progressives government, lawmakers passed the National Conservation Law in late 2013, stating that haste was required in order to prevent the imminent destruction of Cayman’s treasured pristine areas. Then months and years passed, and it was only recently – nearly three years later — that officials finalized all sections of the law, including the legal process by which to protect locations like Barkers.
The announcement of the “Barkers National Park” was an empty proclamation. Cayman’s voters should exercise particular caution against such substanceless statements with the advent of the political campaign season. Now is the time when sitting lawmakers (and their challengers) are tempted to unveil grand plans, proposals and promises — with the caveat that the fruits of their labors are contingent upon election results, and funding from as-yet-unidentified sources.
Remember, that no deal is ever really “done” until the check clears or, put another way, the cash register goes “ka-ching!”