Philosophical debate over property ownership dates back to the foundations of Western Civilization.
For thousands of years – from Plato and Aristotle, to Hume and Locke, and Marx and Mill – great minds have wrangled over and refined concepts related to private and public property, and just where the rights and responsibilities of individual owners intersect with the realm of the state.
Generally speaking, as political history played out – including the downfall of Soviet-style socialist systems and the triumph of market economies – a common precept throughout the first world is that people can do with their property whatever they like (as long as it conforms with the law), and the state cannot dispossess people of their property … unless, and this is a major caveat, the needs of society (think roads and infrastructure projects) mandate the “compulsory acquisition” of that property – and with the owner being recompensed for his loss at fair market value.
Amid this accumulation of nuanced philosophical discourse, our position on private property rights is straightforward: If it’s mine – it’s not yours.
In a small, capitalistic society such as the Cayman Islands, private property rights carry disproportionate importance, nearly to the point of sanctity.
If those rights are ever called into question – if there is ever the appearance of expropriation by the public sector or curtailment by public sentiment – then Cayman’s fleeting era of prosperity is over. Don’t even bother to build out the airport or even consider the cruise port. Expropriation is not a deal-killer; it’s a country killer. (For examples, look to Cuba, Venezuela or Zimbabwe.)
On today’s front page, we publish an in-depth feature package on the Barkers peninsula – Cayman’s “National Park” that never was. The ownership of the area is split between the government and the Dart Group, which is considering its private landholdings for commercial development.
To us, the situation is clear: Dart owns property that is zoned for beach resort, hotel and/or residential development. The neighboring property owner, government, wants to create a National Park.
Fine. The government can no more tell Dart what it can and cannot do with its property (again, abiding by existing laws) than Dart can tell government what it can and can’t do with its public property.
Despite unwarranted combativeness displayed by some officials, and the outright demonization of Dart by certain segments of our population, the government could ask for no more receptive a negotiating partner, on this topic, than Ken Dart and his company. Many of the developers we know would not even come to the table on an issue such as this.
Mr. Dart, some may know, owns hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness across the globe that he has earmarked never to be developed. Locally, he is responsible for the planting of more trees than anyone in Cayman’s history. He is unsparing in charitable contributions, including creating and maintaining public parks.
When discussing competing ideas for Barkers, it must be remembered that Dart has the fundamental right to do what it wants with its property. Any negotiations or agreements with government, in regard to a National Park, are being made by Dart on a wholly voluntary basis.
There is an additional issue that is narrower and philosophically distinct. We refer to the Coastal Works License Application by Handel Whittaker (owner of Calico Jack’s beach bar) to remove four acres of sea grass to complement development on a parcel of land owned by Dart – within Barkers but well outside the boundaries of the proposed National Park.
The application is being considered by Cabinet according to well-defined statutes. In this instance, Cabinet is not obliged to approve or disapprove the application. Quite the opposite. Whether they arrive at a “thumbs-up” or a “thumbs-down,” Cabinet members’ duty is spelled out in the Cayman Islands Constitution: “All decisions and acts of public officials must be lawful, rational, proportionate and procedurally fair.”
When considering Mr. Whittaker’s application, Cabinet cannot allow itself to be influenced unduly by petition-signers, anonymous bloggers, committed conservationists or thinly-disguised detesters of all-things-Dart. Certainly, if and when Dart proceeds with development plans for the inland parcels it owns, government officials cannot let anything or anyone overrule the rule of law.