Cayman Islands lawmakers agreed this week to set aside $10 million to purchase land, including beachfront properties and beach access pathways, for future public use.
The money was taken from the government’s Environmental Protection Fund, which is essentially a reserve bank account lawmakers can use only if authorized by a vote of the Legislative Assembly.
The Progressives-led administration has yet to identify specific tracts of land that could be purchased and Lands Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly said her ministry still wants to take advice from district MLAs – including opposition representatives – regarding where public park land or beach access is needed.
“All members of this parliament have been given equal access and opportunity to submit [land] parcels in their constituencies,” Ms. O’Connor-Connolly said. “I’m anxious to see adequate beach property in all of the districts.
“Every single district should have a minimum of one, and where possible more, beach access … to be enjoyed by all persons in this jurisdiction.”
Some opposition lawmakers groused that they had just been notified of the government’s intention to purchase additional public lands last Friday and were not immediately able to get lists together to submit purchasing proposals to government.
East End MLA Arden McLean asked how much money to purchase lands would be allocated to his district specifically.
Ms. O’Connor-Connolly said the amount of money provided from the Environmental Protection Fund, while significant, was not likely to be spread evenly among all 19 constituencies in Grand Cayman and the Sister Islands. Rather, she said, the government would look at the most viable land purchase options and decide what to buy based on the funds available.
Bodden Town West MLA Chris Saunders asked if government would consider increasing the amount for public land purchases, “even for an additional $2 million to $3 million” out of the environmental fund.
Finance Minister Roy McTaggart said he was “uncomfortable” making that additional expense because he did not know how government would end the budget year at this point and the $10 million expense was already significantly reducing the Environmental Protection Fund.
Once the $10 million is spent, the amount contained in the fund would reduce to about $45.8 million available. Before the 2016-17 budget year, the fund had close to $60 million.
Financial Secretary Ken Jefferson said the proceeds of the fund are invested annually and do produce interest earnings, however, about $6 million was already earmarked out of the fund for use in the purchase of other land for environmental protection purposes in a process now being directed by the National Conservation Council. That money is due to be spent during 2018.
Although the environment fund would be reduced, Premier Alden McLaughlin said he could hardly think of a better use of such a reserve than to purchase environmentally unique lands, as well as beach access areas, for future generations of Caymanians and residents.
“The islands around us who have failed to do this, the social consequences have been grave,” Mr. McLaughlin said.
Beach access fight
The issue of dwindling public access paths to local beaches, particularly in Grand Cayman, has been a subject of hot debate over the last two years.
In May, the Cayman Compass reported that government could face legal action after it refused to “register” about 200 existing beach access paths.
Typically, beaches are accessible in Cayman below the high-tide mark in the sand regardless of where they are located, but many paths to those beaches have been blocked by various developments or by local landowners who do not want people traipsing across their property.
A concerned citizens group has identified efforts to officially register beach access pathways around Cayman going as far back as 2003.
Beach access paths are recognized within the Cayman Islands Prescription Law once they have been used for 20 years, but the registrar of lands has determined that existence of those areas is not recorded in the lands register unless a court confirmed it. In practice, private citizens have not had the time or financial resources to dispute instances where beach access paths have been shut off.
Three members of the concerned citizens group have been granted legal aid to challenge the ruling of the registrar of lands.