Battle lines are being redrawn in the conflict between development and the environment as the government prepares to walk back some of the provisions of Cayman’s National Conservation Law.
The landmark law was one of the first significant pieces of legislation passed by the previous Progressives-led government.
But Premier Alden McLaughlin revealed last week that removing some of its more controversial elements would be among the first actions of his new coalition.
Describing the Environmental Impact Assessment process, particularly in relation to government road development as “ridiculous,” he said the administration was committed to reviewing the legislation.
“My view is we need to swiftly make the necessary amendments to remove these sort of impediments to the proper development of these islands,” he said.
His comments in a Legislative Assembly debate last week followed on from a commitment in his Strategic Policy Statement to amend the law. He did not say how far the amendments would go and whether the process would be altered for private sector developers as well as for government.
Developers have widely criticized the National Conservation Council’s ability to require that developers and government ministries conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment, at their own expense, before a project can be approved.
The council claims it uses the option judiciously and only for large-scale projects which could seriously impact Cayman’s natural habitats.
In a June letter to the Compass, council president Christine Rose-Smyth said it had recommended only six projects, out of 368 reviewed, for environmental impact assessment.
She declined to comment at this stage on the premier’s comments.
Mr. McLaughlin, in his policy speech, said, “We remain committed to protecting our environment, but we must also ensure that we get the balance right between preserving our environment and the need to responsibly develop our islands to help provide employment and opportunities for our people. We will continue to support the environment, but we cannot ignore some tension that exists between allowing necessary responsible development and protection of our environment – particularly following the passage of the National Conservation Law.”
Referring to advice that every new government road would require some form of EIA, he said this increased the cost and caused delays of necessary infrastructure projects.
He added, “Truth be told this tension has always been there – and perhaps in the past too often development has won over protecting the environment. However, both aims are important and need to co-exist, with Cabinet receiving proper advice and having the ability to mediate or decide in cases where a side must be chosen. And so, we will look again at the National Conservation Law to determine what amendments need to be made to ensure the proper balance is struck.”
The comments, repeated in a later debate about two farm roads in North Side, slated for Environmental Impact Assessments on the advice of the conservation council, were welcomed by the opposition leader, Ezzard Miller.
Mr. Miller, the North Side MLA and a vocal advocate for the two roads, said he would have the full support of the opposition benches.
“I thank the premier for his intervention and give him unconditional support to amend the National Conservation Law.”
News that the law could be amended was also welcomed by developers.
David Moffitt, CEO of Ironwood, a planned golf resort in the eastern districts, said any moves to expedite the road approval process would be welcomed. The developer had proposed a partnership with government to build a 10-mile extension to the East-West Arterial road to help facilitate swifter access to its planned resort.
The National Conservation Council indicated that the road would require an Environmental Impact Assessment. Mr. Moffitt said he hoped a broader relaxation of the regulations on EIAs would follow.
“We are encouraged as I’m sure most people are that the premier understands the need to revisit the recent conservation law. The need for a conservation law is obvious, but to go from no law to a law where nothing is allowed without the consent of one lone body, swung the pendulum from one extreme to the other …
“We would encourage government to make changes to the Conservation Law not just to accommodate government agencies interest, but to include all developers. As the premier stated in his SPS address, ‘the economy is the engine that provides for others,’ and the current NCL strangles the engine.”
Joe Imparato, the developer of the Caribbean Club, said he believed the law needed to be amended to make it compatible with responsible development.
“The application of environmental regulations needs to be done with a strong measure of common sense and practicality and not be used as a method of carte blanche, restricting development,” he said.
“I would recommend that cabinet roll back the regulations such that the Department of Environment are again an advisor to the planning board and not a decision maker in the overall process.”
The conservation council defended the EIA process in a recent letter to the Compass.
Ms. Rose-Smyth wrote, “It should be abundantly clear that the EIA procedure is invoked sparingly, and only when the NCC and DoE agree that there are such significant gaps, in either the technical information available for the assessment of potential impacts, or in the technical expertise available, that additional studies and assessment are required. An EIA decision is therefore never taken frivolously.
“It must always be remembered that an EIA does not make the decision on a project; it is a tool that assists decision makers in making fair, technically sound, transparent and robust decisions, weighing the adverse environmental effects against other considerations such as societal benefits, employment and other economic opportunities.”