Fri | Dec 9, 2016

Negril and the towers of Babel

Published:Wednesday | February 18, 2015 | 12:00 AM

On Wednesday, January 28, 2015 at 10 p.m., I received an email from the Ministry of Land, Water, Environment and Climate Change inviting me to a public meeting on Friday, January 30, 2015 at 2 p.m. in Negril to discuss certain provisions of the new provisional development order for the Negril and Green Island Area. I objected (wearily) to the ridiculously short notice and was not able to attend. I later learned that the meeting was called to discuss an amendment to the building height restriction in the current development order.

I reviewed the 1981 Town and Country Planning (Negril and Green Island Area) Development Order, confirmed in 1984, given that it is hard to believe that Negril and its environs have been under any form of planning control. Throughout the document, the beauty, importance, fragility and interconnectedness of Negril's natural resources are emphasised. These attributes are said to be the basis of the resort area itself, to deliver opportunities for recreation and education, and to provide a range of ecosystem services, including protection from storms, fishing and flood control. Some specific provisions of the 1984 development order were:

- There must be public access to and along the foreshore.

- No pollution on the coast or marine environment.

- No modification of natural features of the foreshore without the permission of the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA).

- The size, height, colour and look of buildings will be controlled by the local planning authority in order to preserve design and amenity.

- Tree preservation orders should be enacted.

- A national park should be declared to cover the majority of the development order area.

- The natural vegetation covering the beach sand dunes must be protected.

- The already-impaired swamp forest should not be further destroyed.

- Strict observance should be made of present regulations regarding capture of fish and lobsters.

- The use of beach seines (a type of fishing net) should be discontinued.

- No building shall be closer than 150 feet from the high water mark.

- Buildings higher than two storeys will not be permitted within the development area, except on very special consideration by the authorities.

- Buildings should not be obtrusive and the architectural expression low-key.

- The landward side (of the road) is to remain in its natural state and only limited development will be permitted.

- In order to preserve the amenity of views to the sea on the cliffs, buildings shall be as unobtrusive as possible, one-storeyed and small-scale.

- Solid fences should not exceed three feet on main road or sea frontages and should be so painted as to blend in with the landscape.

Few, if any, of these requirements have been adhered to. Where permission of the NRCA was required to remove important coastal features, it was given in many cases. Removal also proceeded illegally. The Government of Jamaica did declare the Negril Environment Protection Area, including the Negril Marine Park and the Orange Bay Fish sanctuary, but the management of these assets is clearly weak.

I skimmed the new development order. Many of the same provisions are repeated, some verbatim, as if the manifest planning and environmental management failures of the past 30 years have not occurred. Setback limits are reduced, depending on the slope and character of the land, as if sea level rise is merely a rumour. Figure 1 in Appendix 17 seems to suggest that a 10-storey hotel could now be allowed in Negril.

Negril desperately needs a period of taking stock to establish what has been irretrievably lost, what has been damaged but could be restored, what is still reasonably healthy and should now ACTUALLY be protected, not simply promised in speeches and documents. An assessment of the carrying capacity of the Negril/Green Island Area is imperative.

How much, and what kind of, development will the water supplies, sewage treatment and other critical infrastructure support? How is management of the protected area to be funded and improved? What is the status of the zoning plan for the protected area? How will this be enforced? There have been several studies of Negril (including the ones that are currently being used to justify the construction of breakwaters) that describe the many mistakes that have been made. It is high time those mistakes be rectified if Jamaica is not to lose the natural gem that Negril once was and could be again.

- Diana McCaulay is CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jamentrust@cwjamaica.com.