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Introduction to Property EIA – Beginning the EIA Process

Previously, we had a brief look at the EIA process in the BVI. It was an introduction to the general process required for government approval for any type of construction, whether a single family residence, a commercial building, or a major hotel development. Of course, getting approval for a project can be a complex procedure. Obviously, there is a big difference between a residential project on a small parcel or a large resort on the coast with a marina and tons of amenities. Permission for any project will come from the Planning Authority.

Working with government

The primary role of the Planning Authority is to encourage development and all the prosperity it brings. However, that prosperity should be guided so the perceived benefits are not outweighed by the negatives of development. Nearly everyone would agree that the trademark of the BVI embodied by the slogan Nature’s Little Secrets should be preserved. We all want a clean, healthy environment. We do not want traffic congestion or stresses on electricity, water and other services. So, how do we get the best of what development has to offer while not damaging the essence of what attracts people in the first place? The answer is: planning.

The Town & Country Planning Department has the responsibility to balance the needs of the community for economic progress while preserving the current lifestyle. To accomplish their mandate, they work toward that goal by reviewing every application and balancing all the pros and cons. In the real world, that is not always easy to achieve.

A major tool at government’s disposal is the EIA process. A set of published guidelines provides the information necessary to start the process. Thus, anyone wanting to embark on a building project can quickly get an idea of what will be required. This is especially important in the early planning stages, and even before the land is purchased. So, where do we begin?

Survey the land

Before you purchase the land for your dream home, or that big resort and marina, you want to build, perhaps a little homework would be useful. As stated in the first article in this series, some professional advice early in the process can save a lot of frustration, headaches, and wasted time later on. If you have located that ideal property and are ready to take the plunge, consult with an architect, an engineer and an environmental professional. There may be features of the land or ecology that will limit your options. Other factors related to cultural, economic or logistical conditions might also restrict what you can do.

A good place to begin is with a brief environmental survey, sometimes called an environmental audit. The purpose of such a survey is to quickly identify the characteristics of the property and any features that may severely curtail development plans. Examples may include issues related to the slope and bedrock. The geology of this part of the Caribbean has a long history of seismic activity. Geologic forces operating over millions of years, and still ongoing, affect the land and what can be done with it. Some slopes may be unusually steep or consist of unstable rock that is prone to landslides. While a good engineer or architect will take such conditions into account, the structure of the land may limit design options and drive up construction costs.

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Flora, fauna & topography

The hydrology, or water flows, of the property are also important considerations. The Virgin Islands are steep and contain numerous channels, locally called ghuts. During torrential rains that often accompany tropical weather systems, the ground becomes saturated and excess water will flow downhill in torrents. The natural flow will be along these ghuts. Typically, dry streambeds become raging rapids for brief periods of time. The power of the water should never be underestimated. Besides the erosion we know so well, entire slopes can become destabilized. Such impacts must be considered in any development plan. Luckily, government is well aware of these conditions and is ready to offer advice to any potential builder. Further, the T&CP will often place restrictions on a proposal where risk to life or property seem unacceptable.

Perhaps the most obvious characteristic people see on a parcel of land is the vegetation. In the past, a builder would strip the land of all vegetation to make construction easier. We now know that is not a good idea. At the very least it will increase erosion on a steep slope. Not only will valuable topsoil be lost, but when it washes into the sea, corals, fish and all marine life will be harmed. It is better to retain the soil on the site. In addition, saving part of the existing vegetation will reduce landscaping costs and keep some of the natural beauty. Certainly, homeowners love to have palms and exotic flowers surround their house. Resorts want all the tropical plants associated with the Caribbean, despite the fact that most are not even native to our region.

In addition to keeping much of the native vegetation, the fauna will also benefit. The native butterflies, hummingbirds, and other animals are adapted to the native flora and will be happier in such habitats. Wouldn’t it be better to identify the interesting trees and plants and incorporate them into your design?

One purpose of the environmental survey is to identify important creatures and habitats. There are rare and endangered species on the island and their welfare will be considered during the approval process. Clearly, habitats such as mangroves and coastal wetlands are recognized for their role in the health of the environment. Planning to construct a house or development in such an area will raise red flags and require considerable data for the planning authority. A little preliminary information will help clarify what will be required in the EIA to follow.

When considering the purchase of land for any type of development, numerous characteristics must be considered. A little due diligence and homework at the beginning can save lots of time and expense down the road. While it may be possible to build on most any type of land, not every idea will work on every parcel. As an Owner, you want a beautiful project that is harmonious with the environment and is a credit to the community. Before you embark on the designs to fulfill your dreams, check out the geology and hydrology of the land. Get an environmental survey to find out what is there and if there are problems on the horizon. Then you and your architect can create your dream project.

In Clive’s next installment of this EIA special, he’ll take a closer look at the application process and the steps before the EIA can begin.

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