Golf resort developer Ironwood has claimed that the requirement to carry out an environmental impact assessment on a new 10-mile stretch of highway could kill the road project.
Representatives for Ironwood, which is still moving ahead with plans for an Arnold Palmer-branded golf course and lodge in the eastern districts, said there is now little chance of meeting a December deadline to agree a partnership with government for the road construction.
The proposed road traverses the central mangrove wetlands and could potentially impact natural storm protection and flood mitigation to communities along the route, prompting the National Conservation Council to request an environmental impact assessment.
The study could take up to a year and its findings would likely impact the overall cost and viability of the highway, currently estimated at $50 million, making it difficult for government and Ironwood to ink a deal before it is completed.
The two parties signed a contract last year that triggers a package of duty concessions worth $22 million for Ironwood if the road deal is not finalized by Dec. 18, 2016.
Ironwood says it would rather have the road, which it believes is important to the success of the development and would also have spin-off benefits for Caymanian landowners on the route. But the project’s financial backers are not prepared to wait indefinitely for the complex agreement, which has been in discussions for nearly three years, to be completed.
“The deal has been in the works since 2013 and has been carefully constructed to ensure that it meets with all of the requirements of the Framework for Fiscal Responsibility and to ensure that the people of the Cayman Islands are getting good value for the investment, now and into the future,” said Denise Gower, the company’s spokeswoman.
“Funding has been in place for over two years, but missing the December deadline for a signed agreement could jeopardize that funding and essentially kill the [road] project.”
Ironwood hopes to break ground on the golf course next month and has said that the course, the 40-room lodge and the first phase of residential developments will still go ahead as planned.
Ms. Gower added, “The first phase of Ironwood will continue on schedule. But further phases of Ironwood could be delayed if there is not a more convenient way for people to get there.”
The developer indicated in a statement that it felt the environmental impact assessment was unnecessary given that it had already consulted with the National Trust to alter the route of the road.
The Department of Environment says it has been advising since 2014 that an EIA would likely be necessary for a 10-mile highway going through virgin territory.
Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Department of Environment, said section 43 of the National Conservation Law which came into effect earlier this year, gave the council authority to require an environmental impact assessment when sufficient information did not exist for it to make a recommendation on the project.
She said such assessments are not about stopping development, but are meant to be tools that clearly set out the potential impacts and risks associated with a project and recommended measures to avoid or mitigate them.
She said the road project clearly fits the bill to trigger an EIA, adding that there are many potential consequences that need to be examined before the department or the council could give fully informed advice on the matter.
Beyond potential impacts of the construction on the Central Mangrove Wetlands, she said there is concern that the highway extension could potentially create a damming effect that exposes communities to the south of the road to increased flood risk in the aftermath of a severe storm or hurricane.
“Typically, we would expect storm-derived floodwater to drain away into the low lying wetlands,” she said. “The impact of the road on the hydrology of the wider area is something that an EIA would help to determine.”
She said an environmental impact assessment is not necessarily going to deliver a yes or no verdict on the road construction but would examine the impacts and recommend measures to avoid them or mitigate against them.
She acknowledged the process might delay a construction start date on the road, but said the exact timing would depend on the quality of data available.
“The Environmental Assessment Board will prepare a final report after completing a review of the environmental statement and does have the ability to conclude that the project not move forward based on the results of the EIA, but that’s not a decision; it’s a recommendation to Cabinet or whoever the decision-making authority may be.”
Though the law contains some ambiguity over the powers of Cabinet to direct the council, this does not appear to relate to the EIA provisions. Any entity, including Cabinet, which does not carry out an EIA once the council has requested it, would likely be considered not to have properly consulted with the council and therefore be in breach of section 41 of the law.
The Department of Environment recommended an environmental impact assessment for the Ironwood golf resort when plans for that element of the project were submitted in June. However, the Central Planning Authority was legally able to ignore that advice and approve the resort plans because the relevant sections of the conservation law had not yet come into effect. The two sections relating to EIAs and the obligation to consult the council came into force in August.