Monday, September 20, 2010

The Bahamas National Trust (BNT) statement on the proposed development at Bell Island in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park

If the 176‐square‐mile Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park could have been acquired as an untouched or pristine wilderness, the issue of land use conflicts within the park could have been easily avoided by forever excluding all private interests.

There is, however, a legacy of private land holdings in this park, which existed well before the government leased the territory to the BNT in 1962. The Bahamas National Trust Act does not override the inalienable rights of property owners, as enshrined within the constitution of The Bahamas.

In fact, about a third of the Exuma park’s land area is privately owned, including Cistern Cay, Pirate’s Cay, Little Pigeon Cay, South Halls Pond Cay, Soldier Cay, Dinna Cay, White Bay Cay, Osprey Cay, Bell Island and Little Bell Island.

There is no commercial development anywhere in the park, but some private islands have been developed for the personal use of the owners and their guests. Examples include Soldier Cay, Cistern Cay, Halls Pond Cay, and Bell Island. Developments over the years have included land clearing, home and infrastructure construction, and dredging of the seabed.

The most egregious development on private land in the park occurred in the early 2000s, when the owner (Victor Kozeny) engaged in an orgy of pointless land clearing, marina and road construction. The BNT had not been consulted prior to the proposed development, but was able to persuade the government to put a stop to the activities.

The comprehensive Planning and Subdivision Act, which will come into force on October 1 2010, will form the basis for land use decisions throughout The Bahamas. This provides an opportunity for the BNT to develop an authoritative land use plan for the park with strict rules on the scale and scope of development. Currently, the BNT can set rules and regulations for public use of the park but has no control over private land use.

These private islands were grandfathered in when the park was created, and successive governments have treated them as an important part of the country’s tax base. They also provide spin‐off benefits for nearby communities like Black Point, Staniel Cay and Farmers Cay.

The objectives of the Exuma park ‐ as expressed in the 2006 general management plan ‐ are to protect biodiversity, conserve natural and cultural resources, support the local and national economy, and provide environmentally sensitive visitor experiences.

Development on private land in the Bahamas is controlled through permits issued by the central government and/or local government authorities. The BNT works cooperatively with private landowners within the Exuma park and surrounding communities to encourage compatible planning and land use.

Every landowner in the park has contributed generously to the funding of the BNT.

In the present case, the owner of Bell Island applied to the government for permission to expand an existing service/utility area, excavate an inland yacht basin, and dredge less than 9 acres of sandy seabed to accommodate 150‐foot vessels. The total development footprint on the 349‐acre island is less than five acres, and mitigation would include removal of all casuarina trees, restoration of natural vegetation and development of a native plant nursery.

The government consulted the BNT on environmental safeguards for the development, although in the past consultation on such matters has been an exception rather than the rule. The BNT executive committee reviewed all available documents and considered the matter very carefully. The documents included an Environmental Impact Assessment completed by Turrell, Hall & Associates of Naples, Florida in March 2010.

The BNT called for:

1. An independent survey of all dredging areas and the relocation of any marine resources that may be practically salvageable.

2. A comprehensive environmental management plan for the development.

3. Completion of all dredging activities within 60 days.

4. Appointment of a full‐time, on‐site environmental/compliance officer approved by the BNT with full authority to suspend works and enforce conditions.

5. A requirement for the developer’s full and frank cooperation and consultation with the BNT on all matters.

6. Indemnity for any costs that may be incurred by the BNT as a result of the development.

The BNT also endorsed other environmental recommendations made by the BEST Commission.

The despoilation of Halls Pond Cay is a prime example of why the BNT needs to be actively involved in any land use planning within the Exuma park. We are pleased that the government has invited our input in the case of Bell Island, and we have conditionally accepted the relatively low impact of this proposed development. Our view was to permit reasonable access for the owner under strict environmental protocols.