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SDO changes ‘prioritise short-term interests of private companies over environment’

The Bermuda National Trust (File image).

The Bermuda National Trust has accused the Government of prioritising the short-term interests of private companies over the environment.

Walter Roban, the Minister of Home Affairs, said recently that tabled amendments to the Development and Planning Act would streamline the process for Special Development Orders.

But the BNT said in a statement yesterday the amendments would allow the Minister to approve SDOs without the need for debate, resulting in less scrutiny.

Karen Border, executive director of the BNT, said: “The Minister appears to be saying that the short-term business interests of private companies are more important than allowing for due processes intended to protect the natural heritage of all Bermudians.

“Businesses can start and fail, but once bulldozed and developed, our natural heritage is gone for ever.”

While Mr Roban told the House of Assembly on July 2 that the SDO process had caused a three-month delay in the passage of 2018 amendments to an SDO for Tucker’s Point, Ms Border said that checks and balances must be in place.

She said: “The point of an SDO is that it is ‘special’ – it can override the conservation zoning protections of the approved Bermuda Plan 2018, a plan that was carefully formulated by experienced planners and went through a lengthy process of appeals, counter-appeals and a tribunal before being ratified by Parliament.

“SDOs should only be granted for projects that are deemed critical to the national interest of Bermuda.

“Without the transparency of a parliamentary debate, how are we to weigh up the real national interest merit of a proposed development?”

The tabled amendments will require public consultation, but Ms Border said that there was no requirement for the Minister to act on the results of public consultation.

She added: “Experience has shown that Environment Ministers have frequently used their power of discretion to ignore the advice of both their own planning board and independent inspectors, so why should we expect that Ministers will heed the advice arising out of a public consultation?”

Ms Border also voiced concerns about the amendment’s creation of Emergency Development Orders, which are intended to accelerate the planning application process in the event of a national emergency.

She said the legislation as drafted would grant “extremely broad powers” and that the definition of national emergency were similarly broad.

“It lists hurricanes, for example, but does not specify the extent of hurricane damage that might constitute a national emergency, not does it specify who has the power to make that determination,” Ms Border said.

“In principle, Emergency Development Orders may be a valuable tool for Government in a crisis, but the legislation needs to be drafted more tightly to prevent any potential abuse.”

Ms Border said clauses intended to increase environmental protections in the amendments were well intended, they could have negative side effects.

The amendments would create a new designation of “protected conservation areas”, which would be voluntarily adopted by landowners.

Ms Border said: “The new designation could create a two-tier effect, whereby lands that do not have this voluntary designation come to be seen as fair game for development, even if they have conservation zone protections under the Bermuda Plan 2018.

“Indeed, if the Plan were fully adhered to and enforced, and if Ministerial discretion were not used to override decisions based on the Plan, there would be no need for the additional protection offered by this designation.

“Its main benefit will be that, when the current Plan is up for review, landowners will not be able to appeal for the removal of conservation zoning on property designated as a ‘protected conservation area’ without the approval of Parliament.”

She added: “Taken as a whole, the net result of this Amendment Bill is not greater environmental protection, but less.

“With so little of our precious open space remaining, Bermuda simply cannot afford to loosen existing protections in favour of developers.”

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Published July 13, 2021 at 7:54 am (Updated July 13, 2021 at 7:34 am)

SDO changes ‘prioritise short-term interests of private companies over environment’

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