When the Hon. Minister for Lands Juliana O’Connor-Connolly invoked legendary Barbados and Caribbean social commentary song ‘Jack’ by Gabby, it was a signal that the beach access issue is still quite alive in Cayman.
The Legislative Assembly was debating a motion tabled by Hon. MLA for Savannah, Anthony Eden, calling for obstructing beach access to be made a criminal offence.
As it turned out, it’s already a criminal offence and although MLA Eden subsequently withdrew the motion, the issue nevertheless triggered a spirited debate in the LA.
Seconding the motion, Hon. MLA for Newlands, Alva Suckoo, noted the longstanding contentious nature of beach access and right of way.
“As the country continues to develop especially where beach properties are concerned, we are undoubtedly going to see more disputes.
“We have seen some of these disputes turn violent,” he recalled.
Referring to the existing legislation, he quoted: “The public by long use can acquire a Prescriptive Right of access to the beach over road, track or pathway which passes over any adjacent or adjoining land.”
The law also states that any dispute arising can be referred to the Grand Court although it was argued that the cost could be prohibitive.
He pointed to Section 4 of the Prescription Law which gives the public “the absolute and indefeasible right” to beach access under certain provisions.
Mr Suckoo, the Deputy Opposition Leader, said the motion was brought “to ask the government to take the necessary steps to remove the onus from the private citizen and put it in the hands of the authorities.”
Hon. MLA for Boden Town West, Chris Saunders, observed “this is something we take very serious when it comes to land in Cayman. We are talking about land that many Caymanians feel is not only legal but is also a God-given right to access the beach”
He urged that “we really need to deal with this issue once and for all before it becomes on a different point.”
MLA Saunders who was speaking in support of the motion said he was seeking a balance between the rights of the homeowners, including their safety, and the right of Caymanians, handed down through generations and enshrined in the Constitution.
“For some people in the middle of the night if you have people walking down the side of your house (to the beach) there would be some concerns about safety.”
“If this is one way of giving people access to justice that they can’t afford by having the resources of the government defend it then I’m fully supportive of it,” he added.
Hon. MLA for George Town Central, Kenneth Bryan, echoing concerns expressed, stated: “If those warnings are not heard and addressed today or within short order, we may be still in this house, if the good people put us back, having to face a very severe problem.”
In that respect, he spoke of “the possibility of unrest in our community, the possibility of somebody getting hurt and potentially even a suit on us because we have a responsibility as legislators to protect the public’s interests.”
In responding to the issue at hand, the Hon. Attorney General Samuel Bulgin, reminded that legislation already exists making it a criminal offence to obstruct a public right of way.
“I am kind of struggling to see what else needs to be done,” he stated, adding, “I am saying that in good spirits, not being critical.”
He suggested that “what might have been happening is that some members of the public as concerned citizens are wrestling with how to go about dealing with this issue.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “I think they may have been getting conflicting advice about how t treat with the matter.”
The Attorney General explained that a lot of the right of ways are not registered and therefore they are not legally recognised.
“And if they not legally recognised, notwithstanding what the Prescription Law said, the only place you can have that resolved is in the Grand Court,” he advised.
Mr Bulgin also stated that if the government inspectors dealing with these disputes are obstructed in the source of their duties, that is also an offence.
Regarding legal disputes, he reported that “there’s already a public body that is in existence to deal which such matters; the Public Lands Commission, (so) some members of the public are not required anymore to take these matters upon themselves to go to court.”
The Hon. Leader of the Official Opposition, Arden McClean, raised the possibility of “cultural insensitivity” on the part of some purchasers of beachfront properties.
“I don’t know if it’s out of ignorance, or being conservationist, or thinking that their ownership extends beyond where it really should, or where it really does. Culturally insensitive, that may be the case. I find that rather disturbing,” he said.
The Hon. Min. of Lands, Deputy Premier Juliana O’Connor-Connolly summed up the situation with her reference to Gabby’s enduring song Jack which charts the tricky undercurrent of beach access for locals against the demands of a tourism economy.
Regarding the motion, she wondered in light of the Attorney General’s explanation, of the need to proceed with the motion, but left the option open to the MLAs.
At the same time, she gave a commitment that the government “is very on board with protecting these rights”.
Hon. MLA for Savannah, Anthony Eden, who brought the motion to the Assembly, subsequently withdrew the motion.
But in doing so, he wondered: “What I don’t understand is in light of knowing all of these mechanisms are in place it seems to be so much confusion and stories coming from different sides.
In calling on the government “to do something about it”, Mr Eden characterised the issue of beach access and right of ways as “being around since Jesus was on Rivera Beach.”
But amidst the chuckles which that metaphor elicited, the struck a serious tone.
“I am sick and tired of every time there’s always some story or the other, but 99 out of a hundred people you talk to want this resolved.”
“Come on folks,” he implored, “try and talk, communicate, I beg you to communicate.”
The motion was withdrawn but the issue continues to recur like the rolling tide on Riviera Beach.