Ingraham now on self promotion tour – Every goodbye ain’t gone! Former PM Speaks to Abaco Realestate Association

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Ingraham initially refused speaking engagement then reconsidered!?

Hubert Ingraham

Implications for Abaco of the Planning and Subdivisions Act, 2010

Remarks by Rt. Hon. Hubert A. Ingraham – September 13, 2012

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Thank you for inviting me to offer my views on the Planning and Subdivisions Act 2010 and its implications for Abaco.

I want in particular to acknowledge Kerry Sullivan who first extended the invitation on your behalf — an invitation that I initially refused. After some thought though I was happy to reconsider.  I am delighted to be here today.

As we rightly should, in recent years Abaco has increasingly voiced its concern about land — how it is being used and developed.  Our environment is the source of our way of life.  Therefore, sustainable use of our natural resources is essential.

Greater Environmental Consciousness

Much of Abaco is covered by hectares of Caribbean Pine – the pine yard as we say.  The pine yard comprises much of the Bahamian forest which is protected by the Forestry Act, a companion piece of legislation to the Planning and Subdivisions Act that I will discuss today.

Abaco’s pine yard is largely protected forest used only when authorised for housing, business, farming and the production of potable water.

Rapidly growing population and increased tourism developments here in Abaco have increased the demand for access to land for development.

These demands have been expressed through an increase in the demand for housing, for related electricity service; for improved port facilities; for a larger, more efficient and modern international airport; and for improved delivery of general public services.

These demands translate into a larger human development footprint and hence increased use of our natural resources, very particularly land usage, which is the focus of your business.

Recognizing the challenges presented by the development we sought and needed to create new jobs and business opportunities, my Government made environmental responsibility a key tenet of public policy beginning in 1992.

By 1994 we had created the BEST Commission and appointed an Ambassador for the environment.  In that same year we became a Signatory to the Biodiversity Convention.  In 1996 we signed the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change and the following year, 1997, the RAMSAR Convention on Wetlands. These were three key international conventions on the environment.

Also, in 1997 we introduced a requirement for major developments to conduct and submit for approval Environmental Impact Assessments and enacted the Protection of the Physical Landscape Act to improve regulation of excavations and reverse the indiscriminate felling of indigenous hardwood trees.

The Act also created a list of protected trees which could not be felled without prior authorization by the Minister responsible for the Environment.

The Local Government Act which entered into effect in 1996 created a role for elected local government in the regulation of town planning and construction.  In 2001 we extended the then existing Town Planning Act to the Family Islands.  Previously, it applied only to New Providence.

I am always impressed, indeed proud of the seriousness with which some Abaco local government representatives take the matter of town planning including local government officials like Suzanne Bethel of Hope Town and representatives of Marsh Harbour, Green Turtle Cay and elsewhere in Abaco.

Generally, I believe it fair to say that many of us in Abaco have long been agreed that better arrangements ought to be in place to improve town planning, to protect and safeguard investments in real property whether residential or commercial, to protect and improve environmentally sensitive areas including water bearing land, wetlands and the sea, to preserve access and vistas to the sea, to promote sustainable practices in development including refraining from construction on sand dune, establishing setbacks for construction certain distances from the high water mark and to holding developers including government departments and agencies accountable for the impact of approved developments on the quality of life of citizens.

Here in Abaco, we are all very familiar with the environmental chaos created by unauthorized residential construction in areas like The Mud and Pigeon Pea.  Everyone agrees that these are planning and subdivision nightmares requiring attention.

Still, we continue to cut down too many trees in order to build Central Abaco.  We made a mistake in the Central Pines Subdivision for example where we cleared more trees than necessary to accommodate the creation of the subdivision.  Those tall pine trees, from which the subdivision’s name is derived, are not only pleasant to look at; they serve an important ecological purpose. Those trees are essential to maintaining the ecological balance of Abaco – whether impacting our water table, providing habitats and shelter for our wild life, shade to neighbourhoods or fighting man- made pollution from vehicle exhaust systems.

In terms of various key projects in Abaco, the Government undertook EIAs and the results of these studies have been taken into account on the following projects here in Abaco: the construction of the new International Port here in Marsh Harbour, in the construction of the electricity plant in Wilson City, in the construction of the new community hospital in Central Abaco, and in preparations for the construction of the new port facility and Angel Fish Creek bridge in North Abaco.

This does not mean that everyone will be satisfied or happy with final decisions taken with regard to proposed developments; but at a minimum, everyone voicing an opinion or point of view can be satisfied that they will be heard and their concerns and points of view taken into account.

With this environmental consciousness in mind, upon returning to office in 2007 we continued work left in train in 2002 to modernize and improve land-use planning, forestry management, support for national park management and enforcement of conservation legislation.  This work culminated in the enactment of three important pieces of legislation which entered into effect in January 2011:  The Forestry Act, The Bahamas National Trust Act Amendment Act, and The Planning and Subdivisions Act.

While each of these new laws is pertinent to environmental sustainability I concentrate my comments today on the Planning and Subdivisions Act which most directly impacts your business.

Planning & Subdivisions Act 2010

When, in 2009, the draft Planning and Subdivisions Act was first tabled in the House of Assembly and posted on the Government’s website as a draft for review and commentary by professionals engaged in aspects of development and by the general public I noted:

“My Government recognizes and accepts that development is necessary for the progress of our people.  My Government also acknowledges that such development necessarily create demands for the use of resources and some reconfiguration of land-forms from time-to-time.  This Bill does not seek and will not stultify responsible development.”

The Planning and Subdivisions Act is now in effect throughout the country save and except for those portions of the Act dealing with Land Use Plans.  The new Act requires the development and application of Land Use Plans for each of our islands.  The plans for the Family Islands are under development.

The Act is very comprehensive. As a result, some challenges exist in its implementation especially because of continuing inadequacies of our institutional infrastructure both in New Providence and in the Family Islands.

I have been told that among principal concerns in the public sector concerning the implementation of the Act has been concerns over the public sector’s capacity to assist applicants in completing required applications correctly, holding pre-consultation meetings as required for many applications, and finally holding public meetings as required for applications for change in existing land use or for new developments in previously undeveloped areas.

And, there is concern that coordination between central and

local government authorities is still not what it ought to be in terms of facilitating the sharing of information, provision of advice on technical matters or in resolution of conflicts and protests that may arise.

All these processes require increased communication between applicants and stakeholders in the community with those making decision on applications in relevant government agency. They particularly demand transparency and accountability on the part of public officers.  They also require improved staffing levels and larger budgets for planning officers and local government, matters that must be addressed by the government of the day.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Success in planning requires an understanding of environmental issues; it requires clear policy and legislative guidance for development that balances economic needs with environmental necessities.

This is why we need Land Use Plans and this is why we need defined processes for applications for development or for seeking waivers from regulations.

Many Bahamians who are loud in their demands for international developers to protect our natural resources – marine and terrestrial – are far less anxious to observe good environmental practices if observing those practices limits their own ability to: subdivide a property notwithstanding zoning regulations, build a car garage or a restaurant and bar, shop or other business in a quiet residential neighbourhood or community, backfill wetlands to expand their property, dredge a channel to accommodate a boat, or excavate a hill to sell fill.

In August, 2011, the Minister by Order, authorized Family Island Administrators to exercise the powers assigned to the Director of Physical Planning by the Act in connection with approvals for low-density residential developments.   A Planning Advice Note was prepared to guide the Administrators.

I am advised that new planning and subdivisions application forms have been introduced including:

(a) Preliminary Support of Application (Formerly Approval in Principle – such approvals are now valid for two years instead of one;

(b) Land Severance Application (for applications for land subdivision into less than five lots); and

(c) Subdivision Application (for land division into with five or more lots).

The Planning and Subdivisions Act seeks to address inadequacies in our laws, regulations and processes that impact land management and regulation of what is called the built environment.

It broadens the scope of town planning to include environmental impact assessments and requires greater involvement by members of the public in the land use approval process.

It builds on the principles of community development and tackles the core issues faced by homeowners businesses and developers.  It sets out clear guidelines for approval and clear definitions for works permitted without approval.

Its main goal is to prevent the indiscriminate division and development of land while protecting the country’s natural and cultural heritage.

It supports the development of a culture which understands the need for long term planning – something that we, as a country, did not, historically, give a great deal of attention.

If I might use the community of Wood Cay as an example; there is no approved subdivision in Wood Cay, nor has any Zoning Order ever been issued to dictate how development should take place in that community.  All this notwithstanding, the community of Wood Cay determined that they would live on the southern side of the road and develop their businesses on the northern side of the road.  The new Act would expect that in approving applications for future development in Wood Cay, the Local Government Authorities would take that customs and practice into account.

The new Act will significantly reduce time, and hence costs, associated with obtaining Town Planning approval and subsequently building control approval for the construction of a standard house in an approved subdivision or community.

It enables an individual seeking to construct a low density residential development that meets planning standards and who does not have drainage or service (infrastructure) in an approved residential subdivision or community to make a single application to the Building Control Unit (in the case of a Family Island this has been delegated to the Local Government Authority), and pay the requisite fee for a permit and proceed with the construction of their residence.

In a Planning Note sent to all Family Island Administrators in July 2011, the Director of Physical Planning provided helpful guidance on the implementation of the new law.  The note specifically counseled that in considering applications for low-density residential developments (single, duplex and triplex construction) Administrators ought to take into account whether proposed developments were in harmony with existing land use, had a maximum height of two stories, met front and back set back requirements, and where multiple units were being developed, provision of two parking spaces per unit with no reverse-out on to main highways be permitted.

Once a completed application has been submitted, a decision must be conveyed within four months or the application is deemed to have been approved, and the applicant entitled to proceed.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

The Act requires developers of subdivisions to meet minimum standards, install infrastructure, provide access to all essential utilities, preserve wetlands, and ensure that their projects do not cause unsustainable damage to the environment.

For significant developments, an environmental and traffic impact assessment may be required.   And, where development is along our coastline, developers have to guarantee public access to the sea.

The Act contains general land planning guidelines prohibiting construction in wetlands, requiring agreed setbacks for construction – from boundary lines, from the roadway and from the high water mark, preservation of vistas to the sea and access to the beach; prohibition of backfilling of wetlands, prohibition of excavation without permits or of land clearing without permits and without due care and attention to protect listed protected.

It was our hope and expectation that this new law would help us to bring order to development and prohibit bad environmental and planning practices endured for far too long.

Often one hears contractors, or other professionals involved in the real estate sector, claim that high environmental standards should be waived during tough economic times.  I cannot say often enough that a bad development decision is bad whether we are in good or bad economic times.

Requiring a developer, an architect, a civil engineer, or a contractor to meet minimum standards, install infrastructure, provide access to all essential utility services, prohibit development on wetlands, and ensure that developments do not cause unsustainable damage to our natural resources cannot be reserved for good economic times only.

Individuals investing in property and constructing residences during lean economic times should require and expect that they will receive good value for money.  And, the Government has an obligation to provide reasonable safeguards by law and regulation and enforcement, to ensure that people do receive value for money spent.

We cannot use ‘hard economic times’ as justification to approve the construction of residences in unapproved subdivisions or in subdivisions with no evidence of infrastructure installation; to build a duplex in a single family residential area as was done in Central Pines; to operate a shop out of a converted car garage or to convert a residence into an office – in an area restricted by zoning for residences only; to open a shop or a restaurant in a residential area and then introduce unauthorized loud music and outside seating; to run unauthorized and unlicensed street stalls; to hold unauthorised “sidewalk sales” or to place billboards on sidewalks obstructing pedestrians and creating congestion, to operate impromptu fish, conch or crab stalls any and everywhere etc.

And ‘tough times’ can’t excuse unauthorized backfilling of wetlands or excavation of hills, or informal subdivide plots of land, or building too close to a boundary line or near to the high water mark along the sea shore.

Preventing such bad building or planning activities should not be seen as the authorities intruding on the rights of a land-owner.  Too many of these bad habits have been tolerated in small Bahamian communities for too long.  This is not a case of the law preventing someone from “making an honest living”.  You can’t make an honest living from practicing a dishonest action!

It cannot and should not be that we can all be agreed that we should not disturb reefs or important grassy sea bottoms that are important habitats and nurseries for certain species of marine life – until one of us desires to dredge a channel for a marina or reclaim an area of the shoreline for some other purpose!

Efforts to conserve and protect historic buildings in our country have also been frustrated because too many owners practice what is called “demolition by neglect”.  In New Providence far too many examples of our architectural history stand in dilapidated condition marring our city landscape.  Many see these buildings as outdated and seek to build new modern structures – too often structures that resemble some other place – like South Florida for example.

Some recent home construction developments in Abaco also, display this new “Bahamian love affair” with South Florida architecture.  Simply put – building with small foundations, few windows and low roofs do not withstand hurricanes, heavy rainy seasons or hot summers as well as do buildings built off the ground with high roofs and good ventilation.

I have been so pleased that the Schooner Bay development here in South Abaco has adopted an approach that called for study and observation of all the best Bahamian architectural and building traditions and then incorporated these into the design of that community.  It would be wonderful if more of us adopted that respectful attitude toward our own building traditions and history.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Another of the provisions of the new law which would be of particular interest to yourselves are the provisions which have increases transparency in the approval process permitting those who are likely to be most impacted by a development to view and comment upon the proposal, to raise objections and to have their objections heard.

The law also seeks to safeguard the rights and investments of land-owners who fear depreciation in value of their property due to unauthorized, unsuitable ‘change in use’ of adjourning properties, giving such individuals an opportunity to comment on and to seek to influence applications for such changes in use of property.

People have long complained, and rightly so in many cases, about the inordinate delays incurred in obtaining requisite approvals for applications submitted with regard to the development of subdivisions and/or for construction.

The new law is not designed to prohibit activities necessary for orderly, responsible development, but rather to regulate necessary activity.

I must admit that the outcome of this new law remain uncertain particularly in our Family Islands.  The present Government will have some say in the outcome.  To be successful, the Government will need to provide local government authorities with the resources to enforce the law.  They will need also to ensure that public officers and local government authorities enforce both the spirit and the letter of the law.

I understand that some in the public and private sector have expressed the view that this new law’s requirement for consultation with affected community on proposed developments and or on ‘change in land use’ proposals is onerous.  This might be so, but it is the right thing to do.

I hope that each of you agree with me that the best long term conservation of our resources will come as a result of wise  and informed use.

We must find a means of reconciling development in our country which permits us to protect and maintain protected important fragile environments and further ensure permanent public access in protected areas and communities.   While we are preserving the environment for future generations, we also want this generation to be able enjoy and benefit from them.

Tree removal, plant introduction, building foot print, fuel storage and use, garbage disposal, building design, and all other forms of impact on our environment should be governed by highest and best practices, so as to accommodate desired and appropriate use.

In all of this we must never take the view that sustainability and conservation requires preservation. We cannot fear having or even expanding the built environment.  What we must do is ensure that we have clear guidance and regulations for development and we must build a national consensus to support and promote those standards.  That is to say, we should not fear dredging, or building but we must have rules and regulation and monitoring protocols so that dredging and building are accomplished using the highest and best practices.  That is to say – if you cannot afford to implement those practices and standards, then yours is not a development, building or marina that we need (or should approve) in our country.

In closing, I express my hope that we can all agree that while we are not always in a position to alter what has been done in the past, we are committed to positively influence what will take place in the future.

Again, thank you for your invitation.  Amidst the economic and development challenges we face today and into the future I remain confident that the environmental protections we have put in place will make for a more secure future and safeguard our natural treasures for generations to come.