A long-established grassroots campaign is continuing efforts to register more than 200 beach access paths – protecting them from development and preserving them for public use.
As far back as 2001, the Concerned Citizens Group filed 500 affidavits from members of the public in support of its efforts to register the access paths under the Prescription Law – which allows for long-established “rights of way” over private land to be used in perpetuity. The group says it has been in constant dialogue with successive governments since then.
It took until last year, when a series of disputes put the issue back in the spotlight, for the group to receive a response.
In a letter to the group, Registrar of Lands Sophia Williams indicated that the law did not enable her to register the accesses unless ordered to do by a court, following a dispute.
She acknowledged that such access paths did acquire status under the Prescription Law after 20 years of use, but indicated that this could not be officially recorded on the lands’ register without a court order confirming the “existence, nature and extent” of the easement.
Until last year, individuals had to apply to the court personally in cases where they believed a landowner was blocking their rightful access to the beach. A change to the Prescription Law, introduced last year, means that government can now bring such claims to the court on behalf of the people.
An updated survey took place in late 2016 to determine which accesses existed on the islands, but its findings have not been published and government has not used its powers to seek court orders in relation to any beach access paths, at this point.
Speaking on behalf of the Concerned Citizens’ Group, Annie Multon confirmed that the campaigners filed an appeal to the Registrar of Lands. The group is currently fighting a decision to deny it legal aid for that challenge.
Ms. Multon said the group had become frustrated with a lack of progress from government since the Prescription Law was amended. The survey was initially scheduled to be completed in March 2017, according to Ms. Williams’s letter, but no report has been published.
“This is an issue that has been going on for almost 30 years. Why has it taken government so long to do anything?” asked Ms. Multon.
“Government has the power to do this, without us going to court. Why don’t they just go ahead and register the accesses? We have done everything we can and now we are watching and waiting to see when they will get it done.”
Following questions from the Compass, government issued a press release last week confirming that it had established a Public Lands Commission with a remit to deal with the issue.
Minister for Lands Juliana O’Connor-Connolly said in the release, “While the commission is in its developing stage and there are still regulatory and policy matters to be finalised, it is tasked with protecting the right of access to and use of public land by members of the public, including enforcement of public rights of way over private land.”
Director of Lands and Survey Rupert Vasquez who heads up the new commission, acknowledged widespread concern over beach access.
He said, “The Commission is aware of the various media reports, concerns and interests that have been generated in respect to public beach accesses across our islands, and I confirm that this is also a matter of high priority for the commission. The [Public Lands Commission] is the designated government authority which can apply to the Grand Court for the settlement of public right of way access disputes arising under the Prescription Law, and it can deal with unregistered public accesses to the beach.”
Ms. Multon and her colleagues Ezmie Smith and Alice Mae Coe were among the first Cayman Islands residents to begin an organized campaign to preserve beach access, amid concerns that beachside development was impacting long-held rights of access to the seaside.
The group’s advocacy prompted government to commission the Grant Vincent report in 2003, which catalogued many but not all of the beach accesses around Grand Cayman, and proposed potential solutions.
The issues and proposed solutions at that time were largely the same as today. Separate government officials made conflicting arguments about whether the paths could be registered under the Roads Law or through court action under the Prescription Law.
Ultimately, no action was taken and the issue festered until 2016, when a series of complaints about landowners blocking paths, erecting fences and even building over established access routes, brought it to the attention of legislators once again.
A pair of bills, the Prescription (Amendment) Bill, which allows government to specifically apply to the Grand Court to settle disputes over beach access, and the Public Lands Bill, which creates a new unit to enforce those access rights, were passed by the Legislative Assembly in March 2017.
At the time, then-Minister responsible for Lands Kurt Tibbetts said Lands and Survey staff were setting up a database of all beach access paths to ensure registered paths were maintained, and that government could begin court action to clear and register blocked paths that could be proven as prescriptive rights of way.
His successor, Ms. O’Connor-Connolly, said that work was continuing.
“I trust that the 2017 Beach Access Report, which will shortly be released to the Commission and the general public, will be a key reference tool to assist it in taking action for situations such as protecting the right of access to and use of public land,” she said.