A 10-mile highway extension providing swift access from George Town to a planned golf resort in the eastern districts will require an environmental impact assessment before it gets the green light, the National Conservation Council ruled Wednesday.
Government and developer Ironwood are in the final stages of negotiations over a partnership to build the extension to the East-West Arterial Highway.
Ironwood believes the road is a key part of making the planned Arnold Palmer golf course and resort a success, while government has argued that the project will create jobs and open up new land for development.
The new National Conservation Law gives the council power to require an applicant, in this case the government and the National Roads Authority in partnership with Ironwood, to carry out an environmental impact assessment on major projects.
Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Department of Environment, said the project is “probably the longest road ever constructed in the Cayman Islands.” The department recommended an EIA to determine the likely impacts along the corridor, particularly on the Central Mangrove Wetlands, which it describes as the “ecological heart of Grand Cayman.”
The decision to adopt that recommendation during a meeting of the conservation council Wednesday is the first sign of progress on government and Ironwood’s ongoing talks over the $50 million road project.
Discussions have been taking place since January 2014, when Ironwood indicated it would be willing to forgo duty concessions typically awarded as an enticement to large developers to help fund the road, which has been part of government’s long-term infrastructure plans for two decades.
Nearly two years later, in December 2015, a contract was signed that would trigger a suite of duty concessions for Ironwood, worth around $22 million, if a deal was not agreed within a year.
Ironwood’s David Moffitt told the Cayman Compass this week that he believes an agreement will be signed before the December deadline. He said whether an environmental impact assessment is necessary is a matter for the government to decide.
In a memo to the council seeking comment on the development, Alan Jones, chief officer in the ministry responsible for planning, writes that the economic benefits are considered “very significant,” claiming it is “vital” to the sustainability of the Ironwood project. He also cites the opening of other parcels for development, job creation from the road project and other new developments in the eastern districts and alleviation of traffic congestion among other potential benefits.
The memo also indicates that the proposed route has been in the public domain for 20 years, and points out that the National Roads Authority has never carried out an environmental impact assessment for a public road. It adds that the NRA’s geotechnical studies have not identified any significant environmental concerns and points out that Ironwood has agreed to hire an environmental consultant to work with the project crew.
The Department of Environment in its response points out that there was never any ecological or environmental study carried out before the route of the road was decided.
“What took place in the past should not be considered as justification for continuing the practice if it is demonstrably flawed,” it states. “The construction of a 10-mile stretch of a major arterial road through an environmentally important wetland area would trigger the requirement globally for an EIA, and now does so in Cayman.”
Council member Davey Ebanks raised concerns that government may be in a rush to get the project done quickly without the inconvenience of a time consuming environmental study.
“It is obvious the intention is to start now with this road. At the other end of the road they have a development that everybody is gung-ho to get done. It is election silly season. If this EIA is being proposed and it takes a year or more, which I think is feasible, I am just wondering how does it all fit together?”
Ultimately the council unanimously voted to require an EIA, approving the Department of Environment’s screening opinion for submission. The applicant now has 28 days to decide if it still wishes to proceed with the project at which point an Environmental Assessment Board will convene to develop criteria for the assessment.
The Department of Environment’s screening document recommends that the study includes an assessment of the ecological value of the natural resources affected by the construction and examines potential changes to hydrology and drainage patterns which could impact the Central Mangrove Wetland Basin. It says the study should also consider off-site impacts from sourcing aggregate for the road.
Of particular concern is the impact on the wetlands, home to Cayman’s native parrots and West Indian whistling ducks, among other threatened species.
“The proposed 10-mile roadway will traverse a substantial area of wetland habitat along the entire length of the southern perimeter of the Central Mangrove Wetland. As the ecological heart of Grand Cayman, the wetland is critical to many important natural processes which are vital to the long-term well-being of the residents of the Cayman Islands,” it states.