EDITORIAL – Conservation Law: Revisiting an ‘unnatural disaster’

- Photo: Matt Lamers

Four years after the Legislative Assembly hurriedly enacted a convoluted National Conservation Law, it appears poised to hurriedly alter it.

We urge them to proceed, but with care and deliberation.

We have never supported the law – in fact, we have vigorously opposed it since its chaotic conception, which produced a piece of legislation distorted and bent by some three dozen amendments that legislators, at the time they voted on it, could have had no real idea what they were voting on. It passed unanimously. Readers may recall that the Compass published a 12-page section (without advertising) to print the law in its opaque entirety, an unprecedented event in the annals of Cayman journalism. We did so because of our judgment that the radical law potentially was so damaging to the future of these islands.

While the law purportedly was to protect the natural environment, the result might best be described as an “unnatural disaster.”

Premier Alden McLaughlin recently identified as a priority the removal of certain elements of the law, in particular describing the law’s Environmental Impact Assessment process as “ridiculous.” He was correct.

In the letter to the editor printed alongside this editorial, attorney/writer Paul Simon delineates just how “ridiculous” (and dangerous) parts of the law are.

It is certain that major portions of the law cry out for revision or repeal.

The salient question in our minds is whether lawmakers should overhaul the existing law … or scrap it completely and start over.

The premier’s recent statements rekindled the ire of environmentalists who doubt government’s commitment to conservation (some of whom go online to leave outrageously worded, often hateful, potentially defamatory and usually anonymous comments).

Protecting the Cayman Islands’ natural resources and delicate habitats is a noble goal – but one that must be considered in the context of fundamental private property rights and the importance of the country’s continuing economic development.

The current law, shepherded through the Legislative Assembly in late 2013 by a handful of influencers (most notably Department of Environment Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie and then-Minister of Environment Wayne Panton), is wildly out of balance.

The law bestows an inordinate amount of authority and discretion to a single unelected board – including the power to demand a developer conduct an expensive and time-consuming Environmental Impact Assessment (and pay for it) before a project can be approved.

Council president Christine Rose-Smyth has said the council has been judicious in selecting which projects should require such assessments, mandating EIAs for a mere six projects out of the 368 projects reviewed through June. To us, that is cause for concern rather than comfort, and is a sign of the council’s discretionary (i.e., arbitrary) wielding of its outsize influence.

Did legislators actually intend to imbue the council with such power? It’s difficult to tell, but if they did, they should not have.

Even though the framework of the Conservation Law was a decade in the making, the 2013 bill was subjected to a flurry of eleventh-hour amendments, and it took more than a month for the governor to sign the final version into law. The public did not get the opportunity to see the final language of the law until two weeks after that. The law was so cumbersome and complex that all the provisions were not fully implemented until August 2016, two-and-half years later.

Now that they have had ample opportunity to read the law that they passed and observe its effects, it is entirely appropriate for the new Progressives-led government to reshape the legislation into a statute that is sensible, balanced and fair, and that protects Cayman’s environment without bulldozing the economy and usurping the private property rights of Caymanian landowners.

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  1. While I haven’t read the NCL . I have to wonder if everything about the Law is that rediculous that it would need to be repealed , and if we had a Judge to really interprete the Law as written now to say if there’s anything wrong with it .

    I think that sometimes when we try to fix something and don’t know what part to fix we could end up making a bigger mess of the problems.
    But I wouldn’t want to see that the politicians / government have more power in the NCL than the Conservation Council . And that’s what I’m thinking would happen if it went back to the LA. .

  2. If developers think this law is restrictive, they should try putting up a development in London, England.
    For the smallest development one needs to supply the local government with:

    A traffic study (in a city with 10 million people and 1 million cars)
    A tree study (even in a built up area like central London)
    An environmental impact study
    Neighbors objections

    and much more.

    A company I have shares in had to take Camden Council to court over whether or nor a roof addition that was on top of a 5 floor building could be seen from the ground in a narrow street. Yes it could if you stood in a specific part of the street and looked straight up. We won.

  3. I think what people fail to realize is that anyone who wants to restrict something usually have no knowledge of the repercussions of these new laws until it is written in stone. Especially when they have no interest or experience. There is an opportunity to look at the past . How many people signed a petition to stop Dart from redirecting west bay road? 4000. How many people changed their mind after the road was open and traffic got to town faster? 3996
    Do any of you remember that the new 4 lane highway goes through wetland? Lets go back to the days of Jim Bodden ,West Bay wanted a road through the swampland and Bodden Town wanted a road through the same swampland they want an EIA today.What and why do they want an EIA which was never required before? We build roads better then ever before. Whenever they need fixing we fix them . Why all of the fuss about building the East-West Arteriel road ? We all know the road will be higher then the swamp. We all know that land for development will have to build as high as the road. We also know that land from the south is higher then the north. Therefore rain water will flow to the north. We have been building roads for 100’s of years . It has been trial and error in some cases but things change and this country needs to keep up with infrastructure. So scrap the laws for an EIA concerning roads and land development. Or take back every piece of developed swampland and put it back to its original shape and form.

  4. “But Harvey’s staggering flooding is raising very un-Houstonian questions about whether there are, in fact, limits to the Houston model of perpetual growth, and whether humans can push nature only so far before nature pushes back with catastrophic force.”
    The New York Times, August 30,2017