Update: CPA adjourns decision on Bodden Town housing development

Updated, 29 April: The Central Planning Authority has adjourned its decision on an application to create 437 house lots on a site in northern Bodden Town, which abuts the Central Mangrove Wetland.

The Department of Environment had urged the CPA to put Lookout Holdings’ application in abeyance until the completion of an ongoing environmental impact assessment on the as-yet-unbuilt East-West Arterial road extension, which will run by the property.

The CPA released its decisions on various applications that it had heard on 28 April, but did not give give reasons for those decisions at the time.

Original story: Developers on Wednesday presented the Central Planning Authority with plans to build 437 house lots beside the Central Mangrove Wetland area of northern Bodden Town.

A small group of protesters gathered at the Glass House, next door to the Government Administration Building, where the CPA was holding its meeting. The demonstrators were calling for the protection of local mangroves.

Also in opposition to the proposed development by Lookout Holdings was the National Trust, which owns an adjacent property to the site.

Catherine Childs, representing the National Trust at the CPA hearing on Wednesday, 28 April, said, “We suggest that this is a great place to draw a line in the sand – or in the mud – about where we are going with developing or not developing. Let’s say as a community, as an island, that we will protect this important wetland. Make this the proverbial line in the sand and refrain from destroying what makes the Cayman Islands the Cayman Islands.”

Asked by a CPA member if the National Trust would be willing to buy the land to prevent it being developed, Childs said the Trust did not have the money to buy it, but pointed out that international grants and cash were available for the preservation of important wetlands. “Cayman can get on board with that,” she added.

CPA members, however, challenged Childs’ suggestion that permission to develop the site be denied, saying that such projects were an answer to Cayman’s housing shortage, and would enable Caymanians on lower or middle incomes to buy land and build homes.

Demonstrators gather to protest meeting

Protesters gather outside the Glass House on 28 April to call for the protection of local mangroves. – Photo: Alvaro Serey

During the CPA meeting, a group of six demonstrators holding placards gathered outside the Glass House to protest against development encroaching on the mangrove wetland, and to call for changes to the membership of the CPA board.

One of the protesters, Martin Keeley of the Cayman Islands Mangrove Rangers, said the group was opposed to Lookout Holdings’ development because it threatened the Central Mangrove Wetland.

He called for laws already in existence that protect mangroves to be enforced and for stronger penalties to be imposed on developers who clear mangrove areas before getting planning permission.

He added that no one on the CPA had the relevant scientific background to make balanced decisions on developments. “The whole Central Planning Authority needs to be revamped, needs to be restructured, so that environmental decisions are included in what the planning authority approves or disapproves rather than rubber-stamp any development.”

Membership of the CPA is heavily tilted towards people involved in construction or development – an issue that was addressed by the Auditor General in a 2019 report. Following the publication of that report, a number of new faces were appointed to the board, including former National Trust director Christina McTaggart-Pineda.

East-West Arterial EIA

This aerial image shows the Lookout Holdings site (outlined in blue) and the proposed East-West Arterial road (purple).

In its submission in relation to Lookout Holdings’ plan, the Department of Environment recommended that the application be put off until the East-West Arterial environmental impact assessment had been done.

The development, on Harvey Stephenson Drive, would be along the route of the as-yet-unbuilt East–West Arterial extension. The DoE pointed out in its submission to the planning board that the East-West Arterial road is currently the subject of an environmental impact assessment, due to the potential effects on flooding and drainage of nearby communities and the water movement within the Central Mangrove Wetland.

“The EIA will determine the best location to put the road and will determine the design required to maintain a suitable hydrological regime. This may include changing the road layout,” it stated.

The DoE said the outcome of the EIA could impact the new subdivision, and the subdivision may also impact the outcome of the EIA.

“The applicant may have to redesign parts of the subdivision should the location of the road change,” the DoE said. “Therefore, in the Department’s opinion, it is considered that approving the subdivision application without knowing the outcome of the EIA is premature, and would recommend that the application be held in abeyance until the EIA is finalised.

“A phased approach could also be undertaken, starting with a phase in the south which is not likely to be directly impacted by the final layout and design of the road.”

Land surveyor Greg Abernethy, speaking on behalf of the developer at the CPA hearing, said the new development was likely to be built out over a period of 20 years, and would be done in phases.

The site is located next door to the Lookout Gardens subdivision, which the DoE said is approximately 40% built out, “which raises the question of the need for the proposed subdivision development when more than 50% of the existing subdivision remains undeveloped and within the ownership of the original developer”.

In its submission, the DoE also said it was concerned that existing infrastructure will not be able to accommodate a full build-out of the subdivision, which includes small residential lots suitable for single family homes, duplexes or potentially small apartment buildings.

The DoE highlighted Cayman’s “severely outdated” Development Plan, which it said can “result in unnecessary fragmentation of pristine habitats and loss of valuable limited resources, such as land and associated ecosystem services”.

This was echoed by Childs, who said the road, when built, had the potential to act as a dam, and thereby deprive the Central Mangrove Wetland of water and flood neighbouring communities.

The National Trust, in its submission, said the proposed East-West Arterial Road will cut across the northern part of site, and along the southern boundary of the Central Mangrove Wetland.

It suggested the developer set aside the northern portions of the properties that will be left cut off by the road as undeveloped land for public purpose to help preserve the mangroves.

‘Critical ecosystem’

The Trust pointed out that the Central Mangrove Wetland is the largest contiguous mangrove wetland in the Caribbean, but that mangroves, unfortunately, are one of Cayman’s “most undervalued and severely impacted habitats”.

“As well as being a critical ecosystem for wildlife of all kinds, the Central Mangrove Wetland performs many services for the people of the Cayman Islands. Mangroves are known to provide storm protection, act as a sponge during heavy rainfall events to reduce flooding, keep our ocean clean and clear, recharge the groundwater for nearby farms, maintain rainfall patterns for the western side of Grand Cayman, act as a nursery area for commercially important species of seafood, and sequester large amounts of carbon thereby slowing climate change,” the Trust submission noted. “This critical ecosystem must be protected.”

The property in question is zoned agricultural/residential. Abernethy said the land was unsuitable for agricultural purposes.

He agreed the plan for the site could be amended depending on the outcome of the road’s EIA.

The development company also agreed with a DoE recommendation that an area of land for public purpose (LPP), outlined in the Lookout Holdings plan, be located north of the proposed arterial road, along the northern boundary.

Decisions on planning applications heard at the CPAs meetings are usually released the same day. By press time Wednesday evening, no decision had been announced.

The full agenda, with details of planning applications and objections, for Wednesday’s CPA meeting can be found here. The Lookout Holdings application begins on page 40.

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