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Senators pass new SDO laws

Sessions House (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

Controversial changes to laws governing special development orders were approved by Senators yesterday morning despite opposition.

Lindsey Simmons, the Junior Minister of Home Affairs, told the Senate the Development and Planning Amendment Act 2021 would streamline the planning system while creating additional environmental protections.

The legislation allows property owners to get a higher level of conservation status for their land “enshrined by law”, and the minister will be make Emergency Development Orders during a national emergency.

But changes to the Special Development Orders sparked objections from the Opposition and environmental groups.

Ms Simmons said SDOs would undergo “far more transparency, scrutiny and testing” under the amendments, which would mandate a 21-day public consultation period and an environmental assessment.

The One Bermuda Alliance argued that the legislation would allow SDOs to be approved by negative resolution without parliamentary debate, which would reduce the scrutiny they receive.

Ms Simmons however responded that SDOs will still have to be laid in the House.

She added: “If a members wishes to be debated and it is agreed on, it will be debated. Parliamentary scrutiny is not erased and it can be voted down.”

Michelle Simmons, independent senator, said the amendments had several positive elements, highlighting the Emergency Development Orders as a plus.

“It is prudent to give the Minister power during a national emergency to expedite the planning process,” she said.

“We have all heard the complaints from the members of the planning process and how sometimes it can take ages for things to get approved.”

She added that requirements for environmental impact assessments and public consultation were also positives.

But the independent senator said she was still not confident about the change from positive resolution to negative.

Ms Simmons said: “That has caused me to lose a little bit of sleep, but I am concerned that we shouldn’t be increasing scrutiny in one area and diminishing it in the other.

John Wight, independent senator, also said he had “mixed views” on the legislation as the island must strike a delicate balance when considering development – particularly when it goes against the Bermuda Plan.

Robin Tucker, OBA senator, said that while there were many positives included in the legislation, she had reservations about the move from a positive resolution to a negative resolution.

She said all the checks and balances need to be put in place and, while a negative resolution process would expedite the process, a faster process did not necessarily mean a better result.

Ben Smith of the OBA said there were examples of developments that were pushed forward despite broad opposition from the public.

He said: “We have to make sure we have the opportunity to pay attention to those details and sometimes slow things down when necessary.

“We are adding scrutiny in this bill, so why not keep the scrutiny we already have?”

Owen Darrell, Progressive Labour Party senator, said SDOs had been given a “bad rap”, but the addition of mandated public consultation would help to address concerns.

He added that the OBA had pushed forward with the St Regis project and Morgan’s Point proposals without public consultation or SDOs, but the PLP was committed to go through the process as laid out in the bill.

Ernest Peets, the Minister of Youth, Culture and Sport, added that the amendments would make the planning system more responsive in national emergencies while maintaining scrutiny.

Joan Dillas-Wright, the Senate president, said that while she had some reservations about the proposals, she found comfort in her discussions with Victoria Pereira, the Director of the Department of Planning.

She said: “I was impressed that the Director is a Bermudian who has been in that department for 18 years. I was impressed and reassured by her commitment to Bermuda.

“She indicated to us she was a committed Bermudian in the planning department and she would ensure that all the areas that need to be saved would be under her directorship.”

Marcus Jones, OBA senator, put forward a motion for the Senate to resolve into a Committee to debate the individual clauses – including the clause to change the positive resolution procedure.

But the motion was rejected by a vote of 7 to 4, with independent senators Ms Dillas-Wright and Ms Simmons voting against the measure alongside Government senators.

The amendments were passed without changes.

Walter Roban, the home affairs minister, confirmed that any negative resolution remained under the authority of the House of Assembly – where an MP would have the option to take up a motion proposing for it to be debated.

He added: “It’s sad that many of the environmental groups that have commented in the media have tried to demonise not only myself personally but the Government and the planning process.”

Mr Roban said the St Regis development, the Morgan’s Point development and the new airport terminal had all gone ahead with no debate in the House on their environmental impact.

“I didn’t hear all those voices when these were being done,” he said of legislation passed when the OBA was in power.

He added that there had been inquiries “even before this Bill passed from some private interests” on boosting the conservation status of private land.

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Published July 27, 2021 at 7:27 am (Updated July 27, 2021 at 7:27 am)

Senators pass new SDO laws

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