Letters to the Editor

Protecting our conservation zones

  • See but don’t touch: Southlands, a 37-acre parkland area located in Warwick Parish that is the largest single estate now remaining in Bermuda, is representative of areas that need to be safeguarded from developers and over-reaching landowners. The estate has wonderful garden pools, woodland areas and limestone quarry gardens, including yellowwood trees and the endemic wild Bermuda pepper tree (File photograph)

Dear Sir,

The Bermuda Audubon Society has written to home affairs minister Walter Roban in support of the Bermuda National Trust’s appeal against the granting of the Judkin Lane quarrying application. We would like to address some misconceptions regarding the quarry issue and summarise the points made to the minister.

There has already been quite a bit of discussion in the media and online about the quarry and the need for roof slate. In fact, what this is really about is an attempt to build a very large house with a pool and ancillary structures on land that is zoned for protection as woodland reserve.

The quarry application appears to have been granted based on the assumption that planning permission will be given for a separate application, submitted at the same time as the quarry application, for the building of a 6,000-square foot house on the site after excavation.

The extent of the quarrying that has been permitted matches the footprint of the proposed development. Normally, applications to quarry stone where house foundations are being excavated are not granted until after the house application has been granted.

In this case, the process has been reversed. The house application has yet to be considered and has been the subject of several objections based on the protective zoning of the land.

The Draft Bermuda Plan 2018 contains special provisions for undeveloped lots with conservation zonings, allowing for the building of a house with a maximum site coverage of 2,000 square feet. The provision seeks to balance the need to protect areas of environmental value while allowing owners of vacant lots to build a small family home.

The proposed development for this lot is significantly larger than allowed for by these provisions. The quarrying proposal allows for a 65ft rock cut. This is the height of a six-storey building. No amount of planting would be able to conceal a scar on the hillside of this size.

Allowing this to happen in a protected conservation zone does not reflect the acceptable balance between conservation and development required under the carefully considered Bermuda Plan.

Destruction of woodland

There are even more unusual aspects to this story. The land in question, part of a steep hillside that is highly visible from South Road, was originally heavily wooded, largely with allspice forest. Although listed as an invasive species, allspice has become naturalised in Bermuda and affords excellent habitat for wildlife, including woodland birds and honeybees.

In March, the landowner was granted permission to clear-fell the entirety of the woodland on the lot, ostensibly for the purpose of enabling it to be surveyed, on the basis that the woodland consisted only of invasive species and that he would replant the lot with native and endemic species under a conservation management plan.

The necessary survey and plan of existing species on the lot that should have accompanied the application to clear the land was not provided, so we will never know what natives and endemics might have been removed.

The result was a bare scar upon the hillside, with nothing to stop the erosion of the exposed soil from the steep slope over the ensuing months, during which nothing has been planted.

This is not the place to go into the deeply flawed reasoning, from an ecological perspective, which allowed for such destruction.

The fact is that the present environmentally poor state of the land should not be seen as an excuse to further degrade it with quarrying and the building of a very sizeable house, putting it beyond any hope of restoration — as promised in the so-called conservation management plan that allowed for the destruction in the first place.

Abuse of fair process

Finally, there was a clear failure of fair process in the handling of the quarry application. Planning application notices by convention are published in the Official Gazette on the Friday of each week, unless that Friday is a holiday.

These notices contain a list of planning applications registered in the week prior from Thursday to Thursday. The application for the quarry was published on Wednesday, October 9 — although the notice was incorrectly titled “Notice of Planning Application Registered on September 9, 2019”.

The usual Friday notice of that week, published on October 11, was titled “List of Proposed Planning Applications Registered between October 3, 2019 and October 10, 2019”. It did not include the quarry application, although it purported to be a complete and inclusive list of applications received in the time period.

A review of all prior notices available online, dating back to November 2, 2018, has revealed that no other planning application but this one has been omitted from the Friday list.

For those that monitor planning applications on a regular basis, there was no way of knowing that the application had been advertised in the Official Gazette on an irregular day. As a result, several concerned parties, including the Bermuda Audubon Society, were unable to register objections because we were unaware of the application until the time window for objecting had expired.

The public right to review all planning applications must be respected by gazetting such notices in a transparent and regular fashion. That did not happen in this instance.

Furthermore, we are concerned about the failure to directly inform the immediate neighbours of the application, particularly as quarrying would be a very material change of use of the land, from vacant open space to industrial use, which would quite clearly affect the neighbours in several ways, including noise, heavy trucks and increased traffic.

In the planning guidance notes, there is a section that says: “When a development proposal may have an impact on your neighbour’s land, we require you to get a neighbour’s letter.”

The planning department did not require the applicant to get such letters and, therefore, the neighbours were not given fair notice of the application.

The posting of physical notices at the end of Judkin Lane, a cul-de-sac — dead-end road — was not adequate notification.

The Bermuda National Trust property is rented and tenants have no obligation to inform their landlord of such a notice — it was seen only because a member of staff happened to be showing the property to a prospective new tenant. Next door to the proposed quarry development lives an elderly Bermudian woman.

She saw the notice, but said that she could not read its small print. She does not use a computer and lamented that she and others of her generation now have no way of hearing about planning applications since they are no longer printed in the newspaper.

Demand for slate

This application was clearly expedited and granted owing to the demand for roof slate after Hurricane Humberto.

It is our understanding that emergency permits were issued shortly after the hurricane to allow for quarrying of roof slate at sites with existing planning permission for houses that would require some degree of excavation.

The applicant for this quarrying then objected that he had not been given a similar permit. However, this quarry application was exceptional because, under the Draft Bermuda Plan 2018, quarrying is permitted in a development zone, not a conservation zone, and it would involve the excavation of a large area of woodland reserve.

As such, careful consideration should have been given to balancing the short-term demand for slate with the long-term need to protect our remaining areas of open space, especially the few remaining larger areas of woodland such as this area in the vicinity of Mangrove Lake.

Once a wooded hillside such as this is cleared and excavated, there is no going back.

We look to the planning department to take the long view and stand firm by the carefully designated conservation zones set out in the Draft Bermuda Plan 2018 to ensure that what is left of our green space is protected for generations to come.

While sympathetic to those who need to wait for slate to complete roof repairs, we submit that the continuing piecemeal loss of the remaining natural areas in Bermuda is a very real harm to the wellbeing of the entire community, not to mention the natural beauty on which our tourism product is based.

Given that loss of woodland contributes to global climate change, this can also be seen as part of a much wider global emergency.

KAREN BORDER

President

Bermuda Audubon Society

Warwick