The political cliché “There’s plenty of blame to go around” does not apply to the controversy now swirling around the announcement by the National Conservation Council’s unanimous decision to require an environmental impact assessment (EIA) before the “Ironwood road” can proceed.

In effect, an EIA, at best, will delay the road’s construction for many months and, at worst, kill it forever. More menacingly, the ill-advised National Conservation Law puts into the National Conservation Council’s hands a tool – meaning the power to require an EIA – to delay for months or, in some instances, kill a development, including roads, in the Cayman Islands.

This Draconian power rests in the hands of 13 unelected Council members and was bestowed by the National Conservation law, championed by Environment Minister Wayne Panton and his Progressives government.

It gets worse; far worse: Of the 13 members, only seven are required to form a quorum. And worse than that: Since only a majority of a quorum is required to conduct business, four unelected (in some cases, anti-development) activists can bring these projects to a halt.

No one could, or should, blame Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Department of Environment, or her fellow members of the National Conservation Council for this state of affairs. They are simply using the powers handed to them by the current government (with an assist from opposition and independent members; the bill passed unanimously).

The developer of the Ironwood resort, David Moffitt, has indicated that the development will go forward with or without the road. That will be of little comfort to motorists who every morning inch their way in traffic jams from the eastern districts to central George Town. They will have plenty of time as they endure their twice-daily ordeal to think appropriate thoughts about Minister Panton and his government colleagues.

It will also be of little comfort to Caymanian landowners whose properties along the road corridor will now be worth only a small fraction of their value if the road were to go forward.

If that’s not enough, consider this: Last December, developer Moffitt and his investors entered into an agreement with government that they would forgo $22 million in concessions at Ironwood – and build the road – if the contract was signed within a year. That deal expires in six weeks, meaning:

  • The country gets no road
  • Ironwood gets its $22 million in concessions

Even if the needed road were to move forward after the environmental assessment (highly unlikely), government no longer has a private sector partner to help build and pay for it.

Nevertheless, what Cabinet cannot do, without legal or political consequences, is simply steamroll the Council on the EIA requirement – or, when the EIA comes out, ignore the study or attempt to “gloss over” the outcome of the EIA using buzzwords like “mitigation” (possibly the wimpiest word in the dictionary. How does one “mitigate” the effects of 10 miles of hot-mix asphalt through sensitive wetlands and animal habitats?)

By definition, all development is disruptive of the status quo, and that includes the natural environment. Our leaders need to be aware of a popular “false equivalence” between protection of species and the need for desirable development and economic growth.

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