EDITORIAL – Conservation Law: Time to reexamine, revise … or rewrite

In English class, we learn that there are only a handful of types of conflict: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society, and so on. We submit that Cayman’s ill-conceived, hastily approved and heavy-handed National Conservation Law deserves a category of its own: Government vs. Government … and Everyone Else.

Like cavalry to the rescue, a review committee may soon recommend changes to the law, which bestowed a shocking amount of power on a small appointed group, enabling them to trample the rights of property owners while pushing their agenda on private citizens and public bodies.

Premier Alden McLaughlin has made the welcome announcement that he will appoint a committee to recommend changes to problematic areas of the law, including the “broad and generally unfettered discretion” it grants the National Conservation Council to require time-consuming and costly Environmental Impact Assessments for potential projects. This review has been long in coming – and should have happened before the law ever became law.

Council Chairwoman Christine Rose-Smyth recently expressed concern that Environment Minister Dwayne Seymour had not met with the board for months. “No responses” rarely constitute flattering commentary on an individual, but in this instance, given the shifting political circumstances, it is difficult to assign much blame to Minister Seymour. If he had held a meeting with the Council, what, exactly, was the minister supposed to tell them? (“Stay tuned …” perhaps.)

This editorial board has expressed grave concerns about this legislation since it was in bill form, when it was ramrodded through the Legislative Assembly with help from a few vocal influencers (including Department of Environment Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie and then-Minister of Environment Wayne Panton), and again when it was chopped to bits and reassembled on the House floor during an 11th-hour session of parliamentary surgery.

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We were so apprehensive of this “Frankenstein’s monster” that, before the bill was to be debated, we took the unprecedented step of publishing the entire text of the radical law in a special section that comprised 12 solid pages of newsprint.

At the time, we doubted the Legislative Assembly anticipated the resounding repercussions of the Conservation Law, and how dramatically it would tip the scales against “development” and toward – no, not “nature” – but “anti-development.”

We do not oppose sensible and reasonable protections for Cayman’s unique natural environment. After all, the environment is where we all live and is one reason we choose to live in Cayman.

What we do, oppose, however, is how this Conservation Law has granted tremendous authority to an unelected National Conservation Council, including the ultimate power over the “life and death” of development projects, regardless of economic potential, private property rights or recommendations of other government entities.

One of the biggest cudgels at the Council’s disposal is its discretionary power to mandate that developers undertake and pay for Environmental Impact Assessments — expensive and time-consuming procedures that can delay or kill projects, regardless of the actual “environmental impact” that is eventually assessed.

In all cases, but especially those that would limit constitutional and natural rights to property, laws must be clearly delimited, reasonable and universally applicable. (When we’re discussing governmental powers, particularly of appointed citizen boards, “discretion” is a dirty word.)

We hope that a thorough but efficient review will lead to recommendations and amendments that will soon restore order – and a semblance of common sense – to both Cayman’s natural AND economic environments.

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