We must protect our woodland reserves
If the application recently submitted for a quarrying operation on a vacant lot at 9 Judkin Lane, Hamilton Parish, to be followed immediately after by application for a large house, ancillary cottage and swimming pool — all on woodland reserve zoning — receives approval from the Department of Planning, then I can confidently state that our planning legislation and zoning laws will no longer have any meaning at all. This would be an extremely dangerous precedent to set.
This matter first came to the attention of the public when a huge land-clearing scar appeared on Ramgate Hill immediately behind Mangrove Lake, as viewed from Tucker's Town Road — one of Bermuda's most scenic tourist routes. This already came as a shock to many in the community, but more so when it was learnt that the land in question was zoned woodland reserve.
Subsequently, it was discovered that this wholesale clearing with a back hoe was a poorly implemented “Preliminary Conservation Management plan”, approved in principle by the planning department pending submission of a building development application for the same site, renewed in November 2018.
It is pertinent to point out here that the approved woodland management plan covered most of the site and did not include any proposal for re-contouring of the hillside, which is very steep, especially on its upper part.
After that submission, the planning-application scenario became increasingly complicated, but before going into that, it is necessary to explain why. There are two reasons in this case:
Conservation zonings, including Arable Land Reserve, Woodland Preservation Reserve and Nature Reserve, were first introduced with the 1983 Development Plan and were not intended to be encroached upon by further development for housing or industry because they were calculated to be the minimum required to preserve Bermuda's surviving scenic beauty and biological diversity into the future. (Bermuda was already highly urbanised even then). Those conservation zonings were not frivolous or arbitrary, but based on the cumulative rating of several criteria for each discrete, open-space parcel surveyed. (For more detail on this the reader is directed to read the Report of Survey for the 1983 Development Plan).
The problem, however, was that these zonings were superimposed on a mosaic of privately owned lands with no provision for compensation so that the value of those private lands for development became extremely inequitable. Some people — and most often the good land stewards — found their entire properties zoned for conservation because it was the only land with open-space values left in their area, leaving no options for development at all. Others continued to have development zoning on their property, and that value was increased where the land lay adjacent to conservation zonings.
The only fair solution to this was compensation equal to the development value where land was protectively zoned, but because much more than a thousand acres were involved, the cost would not have been affordable by the Government in one lump sum.
Compensation was indeed achieved in some especially critical cases for parks such as Hog Bay and public beaches such as Astwood Park and Somerset Long Bay Park, and in a few cases it was also achieved through a partnership between the Government and the two major non-governmental organisations, conservation entities with legal mandates to hold land in trust as nature reserves — the Bermuda National Trust and the Bermuda Audubon Society.
One example is the Long Bay east nature reserve adjacent to Somerset Long Bay Park. It is unfortunate that this beneficial approach seems to have been discontinued because it could have gone a long way by now to address the inequities if continued on an annual basis.
Yet, despite the small scale of compensation, it is surprising how many of the larger landholders accepted the zonings, perhaps because they could afford it and preferred to keep their own control of the land. But I like to think that it was also owing in large part to their desire to preserve the quality of our environment out of love for Bermuda and concern for our economy. Indeed, some have even donated their conservation-zoned lands for conservation.
However, for the majority of landowners who were less able to afford such generosity, it left a bad taste, which has since made them generally hostile to the conservation zonings, but only where it happens to apply to their own lands.
As a solution to this inequity, the Government introduced a compromise solution with the 1992 and subsequent plans, making provision to allow a “moderate scale” home — 1,000 square feet — to be built on all conservation-zoned lands in cases where the zoning involved the entire landholding of the applicant. The present application for a house on this woodland reserve was submitted on this basis.
While this may be the only fair thing to do without compensation or transfer of development rights, it has not worked in the case of woodland reserve zoning, resulting in a continued and substantial loss of woodland. There are three fundamental reasons for this:
1, Most of our woodland zonings are small in area, so even the building of a “moderate scale” cottage can reduce it to the status of a mere perimeter hedgerow
2, Most of our woodland-zoned areas are on very steep slopes because such areas resisted easy development in the days before heavy excavating machinery and were the only extensive woodlands remaining. Development on such steep slopes requires extensive excavation, and such de-facto quarrying inevitably destroys even more of the woodland
3, Because of our roof-water catchment and cistern storage system in Bermuda, it is not possible to allow leaf-shedding trees to overgrow or even grow near to our houses, reducing the woodland even more
The Judkin Lane development proposal is a classic demonstration of why this can't work to save the woodland.
On September 18, while this application was still in limbo, Bermuda was hit by Category 3 Hurricane Humberto, and a surprisingly high percentage of houses with Bermuda slate roofs suffered some roof damage. The shortage of slate required to meet the demand is serious, resulting in long delays for roof repair. It is my understanding, mainly from hearsay, that because the large house and pool proposed for the woodland-zoned site on Judkin Lane would require a massive excavation to level the land for development anyway, and because the substrate in that area is known for its very high-quality building stone, a proposal to quarry the site for slate has been fast-tracked through the planning department.
This might seem like good sense until you consider that the land in question is zoned entirely as woodland reserve, is highly visible from across the water of Mangrove Lake from a popular tourist route, and is accessible only via the very long and narrow Judkin Lane in a quiet rural area, bracketed on one side by the Bermuda National Trust H.T. North nature reserve and on the other by the trust's Mangroville property.
Now I accept that the shortage of slate for roof repairs is an immediate crisis requiring a short-term solution, but in an era of increased hurricane activity and sea-level rise because of global warming, this problem is only likely to worsen. It makes little sense to keep lowering our landscape with quarries when sea level is rising.
As someone pointed out in this paper just a few days ago, it is well proven that the SKB roofing system survives hurricanes much better because it is fastened down, looks like a Bermuda roof and does not require quarrying of native stone on this island of extremely limited land resources. Would it not make sense to mandate the new roof system for all new houses and reserve future quarrying for roof slate for the maintenance of existing roofs and listed house restorations?
There are many disused quarries in less visible sites near the level tops of Ramgate and Whitecrest Hill, which could be resuscitated with the end goal of linking them where practical to restore a more natural contour to the land, rather than the hotchpotch of deep holes with precipitous cliffs, which exists there at present and which pose an unsuspecting hazard because their tops have no warning safety fences. I feel sure the owners would co-operate in this regard with potential economic benefit to themselves. But let us not further compromise our most visible woodland-zoned areas.
In conclusion, a comparison of the preliminary woodland reserve restoration plan at 9 Judkin Lane with the application for a large house, pool and ancillary structures, and the proposed quarrying operation to accommodate it, reveals that they are hopelessly incompatible — both the quarry and the buildings would occupy the entire site. The owner must have had no intention whatsoever to comply with the intent of the woodland zoning despite the fancy “restoration plan” submitted. There would be nothing left of the woodland at all and its place would be taken by an ugly scar with a 65ft cliff face, highly visible from a public road and filled completely with large buildings and a pool.
This is the worst abuse of the planning legislation that I have ever seen and, if approved, would render all our planning legislation meaningless.
In the interest of conservation, Bermuda simply cannot afford to let this happen and I urge everyone to speak out and support the court case that is pending, given the very hasty and inadequate notice for public objection.
There is irony in that the owner might just have gotten approval for a “moderate-scale cottage” without public objection if he had proposed to situate it on a level terrace, which already exists on the lower slope of that hillside and which already has the remains of an early Bermuda cottage on it, precluding the need for extensive excavation.
When people purchase lots with conservation overlay zonings, they should be prepared to compromise in the interest of Bermuda's economic future, not ride roughshod over them. To this applicant's credit, however, he has not proposed to encroach on the arable land zoning at the level bottom of the lot.
This is a clear case for compensatory purchase, which I am sure the Bermuda National Trust and the Bermuda Audubon Society, in their joint role as “Buy Back Bermuda”, should be willing to fund with the help of the Government and a public fundraising drive.
• David B. Wingate is the longtime former Bermuda conservation officer