By Gemma Handy
Developers who surged ahead with work on the controversial special economic zone near Jennings before local residents were consulted and environmental impact assessments carried out flouted the rules, government said yesterday.
The clearing of vegetation within the 549-acre site without following the due process may have been an “inadvertent” circumvention of regulations.
But there’s still a possibility the developers could face penalties, Information Minister Melford Nicholas told Thursday’s post-Cabinet press briefing.
Rules outlining developers’ responsibilities are laid out in the country’s Physical Planning Act.
What’s less clear is how investors were able to start work apparently unsupervised and why a halt was only placed on the project after considerable public outcry.
“We made an intervention and the development was stopped,” Minister Nicholas said when asked to clarify.
“The developer was advised that he had gone a step ahead of the process – and in terms of the environmental impact assessment that is to be put in place and what else will follow beyond that, there will be stakeholder engagement and public hearings about the development,” he said.
Pressed as to why the public’s input was not sought as standard beforehand, given the sheer scale of the scheme, he acknowledged that such dialogue “is actually in the law”.
“I imagine what the developer had in mind was to clear pathways for access in terms of doing the roads, but clearly it set off the ire of certain members of the public.
“The process of law will now be followed,” Nicholas said, adding that developers now had “no choice” but to follow the rules.
He was also asked what repercussions might ensue in the meantime.
“We certainly saw it as inadvertent but it’s not for me to make a judgment on that,” the minister explained.
“The Department of Environment and the Development Control Authority are at the helm and if they make any determination that there were any significant breaches that require restitution and penalties then they will make those prescriptions,” Nicholas said.
Chief Environment Officer Diann Black-Layne told Observer yesterday that no details of the project had yet been received by her office.
She was also asked about the likelihood of investors being stung with penalties for starting work prematurely.
Black-Layne said she could not recall a single previous case of such.
“We usually try to resolve things through remediation,” she explained, referring to the process of attempting to reverse any environmental damage.
Vijender Singh, CEO of Western Imperial Capital Limited which is behind the project, told Observer his company had “not acted illegally” while carrying out any work in the area.
“The wetlands, which is known as the environmentally sensitive area, has not been touched at all. Anyone can check. And we have never touched any single mangrove,” he said.
“We have only constructed a road that’s far away from that area which enables both ourselves and visitors access to the beach. Without the road people were not able to safely reach the beach.
“We have engaged the Department of Environment to examine the wetlands which we are protecting for the benefit of Antigua,” Singh added.
Meanwhile, more than 2,000 people have now put their names to a petition demanding the project be scaled back. Under the current masterplan, the vast area between Jennings and Five Islands would see the creation of hotels, shops, theme parks, a cryptocurrency centre, casino, private homes, a financial district, warehouses, hospitals and universities.
Campaigners say the plans infringe on the country’s largest wetland, home to rare and endemic wildlife. The area has long been a popular haunt for fishers, hikers and birdwatchers who fear for its future if the development goes ahead unabridged.
Yesterday, the petition’s initiator Raul Samuel said the campaign was being stepped up with letters being written by various people to several government departments raising concerns about the project’s potential legal infringements.
Samuel is also appealing to the public to join a walk-through of the area tipped for development on February 6. Participants will meet at 6am at the Valley Road entrance to Seaforth Beach.
“We want as many people as possible to come,” he told Observer. “The more people become sensitised to the area, the more they can relate to the issues raised in the petition.
“A lot of people have never even been there so this is a chance to come and see it – and appreciate why it needs protecting.”
Participants are encouraged to attend in family or workplace groups in line with Covid safety guidelines.
Government previously denied the development posed a threat to the environment. Earlier this month, Environment Minister Sir Molwyn Joseph said work would be carried out sustainably and ultimately create hundreds of jobs.