Drawing a line in the sand

Former cop tackling beach-access concerns

Winsome Prendergast on patrol on Seven Mile Beach recently. - Photo: Alvaro Serey

Concern over public access to the beach is an issue that has festered for decades in the Cayman Islands. A 2018 report revealed that the vast majority of public access paths to beaches were either blocked, neglected and overgrown with vegetation, or lacking proper signs.

Disputes between landowners and beachgoers over ‘rights of way’ to the beach have also escalated over the past decade.

Combined with concern over commercial activity on the island’s beaches, the issue prompted government to establish the Public Lands Commission.

Now former police commander Winsome Prendergast is leading the new commission’s inspection unit.

In an interview with the Cayman Compass, she laid out the role of the commission, the rights of beachgoers and how to complain if you feel your beach-access rights are being restricted.

What is your role?

My post is chief inspector of the Public Lands Commission, which means I am the head of the Public Lands Inspectorate. The commission’s mandate is to regulate the use and enjoyment of public land. It is the inspectorate’s job to enforce that.

When did you start and what have you been doing? 

I am a retired RCIPS district commander. I began my post as chief inspector of the commission in January of this year. Initially, I have primarily been responding to complaints regarding obstructed beach accesses and getting acquainted with the current situation. I am currently working alongside my supervisors on the development of regulations under the Public Lands Law, which will govern the everyday running of the commission and its inspectorate.

How has it gone so far? 

The journey thus far has been busy but rewarding as I am the first person that will ultimately form the Public Lands Commission Inspectorate – the commission’s enforcement arm. However, it is a big challenge. This post has not existed before, and, more importantly, prior to the passing of the Public Lands Law there was a lack of modern legislative powers available to government entities to deal with problems such as obstructed beach accesses and the unauthorised use of public land.

Winsome Prendergast

This has been a big talking point for a number of years now. Are you seeing that reflected in the amount of calls and concerns you deal with? 

Yes, although it is early days, and I think many people still do not yet know of the Public Lands Commission and what it does. As such I expect the volume of work to increase as the public becomes more aware of the inspectorate and how to contact the inspectorate with their concerns and complaints.

Are you there to help sort out beach-access disputes, for example, the blocking of beach-access paths?

Yes. It is an offence under Section 26 of the Public Lands Law, 2017 to obstruct access to public land, including obstructing registered public rights of way over private land. I am out and about most days to inspect public rights of way and public beaches, and I will be methodically following up on the Beach Access Report that listed all accesses to the sea. I prefer to deal with disputes by negotiation and diplomacy where possible.

What about public use of the beach itself? What are the rules there? How much of the beach is considered public?

The property boundary between the beach and the sea is the mean high water mark, which itself is defined by Regulation 28 of the Land Surveyors Regulations. The public’s right to traverse and use the beach is covered by Section 4 of the Prescription Law, although this right is not registered. However, this is a complex matter, untested in the Grand Court, and it continues to give rise to disputes. In most instances we expect that common sense will prevail.

How to contact the inspector

Email  [email protected] or call 916-0729. Email is the best format to report complaints. To make a confidential report or complaint, include the word “confidential” in the subject line of the email.

Do you respond to complaints, for example, about people being asked to move from beaches in front of hotels? What are the rules here?

So far, I have not received any complaints of this nature. As a proactive measure, I have spoken to several Seven Mile Beach condominium managers to discuss the need for sensitivity around the subject and to ensure that they are knowledgeable and mindful of the prescriptive rights of the public, while respecting the privacy rights of the landowner.

Are you the only enforcement officer or are there others? 

I am currently the only enforcement officer; however, the Ministry of Lands is in the process of recruiting additional staff this year.

What about beach vendors? How is that regime coming along and how is it going to work? 

Beach vendors require a permit from the Public Lands Commission. However, the commission is unable to issue permits until the regulations under the Public Lands Law come into force. We are currently working assiduously to have these regulations approved and gazetted. Similarly, the commission, in conjunction with the ministry, is developing policy guidance on the subject of the previously approved beach vendors that operate on Seven Mile Beach prior to enactment of the Public Lands Law. This consent has been extended temporarily until the regulations are finalised and policy guidance is issued. The regulations and policy guidance are expected to be in place prior to the completion of the Seven Mile Beach upgrades before the end of 2019.

When will the vendor village open on Public Beach and how will it be policed to ensure there are no problems with rogue operators? 

The off-beach purpose-built ‘vendor village’ kiosks are scheduled to open on Seven Mile Public Beach soon after the improvement works that DECCO is undertaking for the government are finished. As I said, it is intended that this will coincide with the finalisation of the regulations which are required to enable the commission to consider beach vendor applications. The regulations and the Public Lands Law will enable full enforcement by the Public Lands Inspectorate.

Can anyone apply for a licence to be a beach vendor or is this just for those that were operating there already? 

Anyone can apply for a beach vendor permit to operate from public land, but the commission has yet to hear any applications whilst the aforementioned regulations and policy guidance are finalised.  Once finalised, the commission can then implement an efficient and effective licensing and monitoring regime. The policy will include guidance on the current vendors at Seven Mile Public Beach. In addition, we do know that at Seven Mile Public Beach car park there will be dedicated mobile food truck spaces provided as part of the current upgrade, so we expect that applications for these will be invited from the public in due course.

What about elsewhere on the island? Will vendor licences be issued for other beaches such as Governors Beach or Smith Cove? If so, how many and how will you decide who gets them?

The finalised policy guidance is expected to address this concern, although it is important to note that at certain locations restrictive covenants exist which ensure that no commercial vending can be permitted (e.g. at Smith Cove and the new portion of Spotts public beach). I think that generally, public sentiment is against beach vending on public land in some locations, but at others it has occurred for years. DECCO, in cooperation with the government, is providing facilities for beach vendors with the kiosks at Seven Mile Public Beach. The government is also providing a designated space via the new cabana at Coe Wood public beach.

What about issues over paths that have been built over or blocked, as per the Beach Access Report? Are you doing anything to address that? 

The Public Lands Inspectorate is currently examining the Beach Access Report that was completed by the chief surveyor. We are working on erecting signage to all unmarked registered public rights of way, and the next step will be to clear all these of any obstructions. We will seek to do this initially by communicating with the private landowners over which these rights of way pass, where such obstructions appear to be deliberate. The law, as supplemented by the finalised regulations, will provide the tools to enable enforcement.

The next major project will be to work towards registering public rights of way that are currently not registered, using the provisions of the Prescription Law.

Anything else you want to say about the role of the commission and how the public can access your services? 

We are here to work closely with and in service to the public, and I look forward to hearing from anyone who would like to bring any matters affecting the public’s use of public land to my attention. We are arranging a website which will facilitate contact with the inspectorate and look forward to further engaging with the public on this important issue. We will also be engaging in a public education campaign to sensitise the public of the role, policies, and processes of the Public Lands Inspectorate in the future.