EDITORIAL – Conservation Council: Once fanged and feared, now dormant and toothless

The only thing worse than having a bad law is having a bad law but not enforcing it.

Flawed or ill-conceived legislation can cause Excedrin-strength headaches, economic roadblocks or personal injustices. But when officials pass bad laws but only enforce them selectively, or not at all, they create potentially even more serious issues, such as mistrust of institutions, disregard for the rule of law generally, and the opportunity for government to wield those laws as weapons to punish opponents.

Accordingly, we now find ourselves in the somewhat interesting position of calling out Cayman Islands officials for not carrying out the provisions of an admittedly terrible law that we have long argued should have never become a law in the first place. We speak of the National Conservation Law, about which we said, before its passage in late 2013: “Nearly everybody should hate nearly everything about it” – hardly a ringing endorsement.

As the Compass reported Tuesday, the National Conservation Council, enshrined in the law, has, in effect, gone dormant: Following the resignation of former council chairperson Christine Rose-Smyth in late 2017, the council did not have a chairperson for some eight months. It also has not held a single public meeting since June last year.

Ms. Rose-Smyth resigned amid uncertainties over the government’s continuing support for the body. Around that time, Premier Alden McLaughlin had announced a forthcoming review of the National Conservation Law and the removal of “ridiculous” portions of the law.

The law’s biggest champion, previous Environment Minister Wayne Panton, had suffered an electoral defeat in May 2017 and was no longer in office. Mr. Panton’s successor to the ministry position, current Environment Minister Dwayne Seymour, did not meet with the council during the five months after the election, Ms. Rose-Smyth reported.

We applauded the premier’s stated intent to review and revise the law – with the goal, of course, to preserve private property rights and enable economic development, while providing suitable protections for Cayman’s natural environment.

Although we do not believe that the interests of environmental advocates should be given equal standing with the wishes of citizens seeking to use or develop their own private property, we would defend the position that concerns about the environment are oftentimes valid and in need of thoughtful advocacy.

The previous incarnation of the council did itself considerable harm by taking fanciful – even comical – positions, such as requiring an environmental impact assessment on the proposed removal of beach rock from a site which was to be the home of a Four Seasons luxury resort.

Using reasoning that has never been clear, at least to us, the same council elected not to require an environmental impact assessment for the huge Grand Hyatt resort planned on the southern end of Seven Mile Beach.

(Please do not misunderstand us. We are not advocating for an EIA for the Grand Hyatt. Quite the opposite. Our position is that EIAs are at least as political as they are scientific and in some instances have been used by environmentalists as tools to impede, if not euthanize, projects they oppose.)

The solution to reining in an unsatisfactory or arbitrary government board is to reappoint the board – not to leave it leaderless or without a quorum. Similarly, the solution to remedying a flawed law is to amend or repeal it – not to withdraw political support for it and hope those responsible for executing the law “get the message from upstairs.”

For the better part of last year, Cabinet, through its inaction, silenced the Conservation Council and the interests it represents. It brought to realization an observation we made in late 2013 about the Conservation Bill: “The bill neither guarantees the protection of the environment nor does it provide assurance for Cayman Islands landowners and developers.”

In this New Year, lawmakers need to address the mess they made with the passage of this ill-conceived legislation – and the offspring, such as the National Conservation Council, it engendered.

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