Natural Reserves vulnerable to Developers in Puerto Rico
Experts Question the elimination of 7 Natural Reserves
The action of the Planning Board and Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares to nullify the designation of seven natural reserves for alleged procedural flaws has raised doubts about the true reasons for this action, and has exacerbated the distrust of the government between some sectors.
For lawyers who are experts in planning and environmental law, the action of the Planning Board and Rosselló is unprecedented.
In addition, it adds to the suspicions, as a few months ago, there was an announcement on the page of the Industrial Development Company, in which it was said that “Puerto Rico is open for business” . On that page, the sale of dozens of properties was announced, including some natural areas such as the Icacos and Ratones keys.
Although the government later retracted, the announcement created the idea that anything could be sold or rented in Puerto Rico, in order to raise money to the overwhelmed coffers of the country, said Pedro Saadé Llorens, an expert lawyer in environmental law.
On July 3 – on the recommendation of the Planning Board – the governor signed two executive orders to annul the delimitation of seven new natural reserves: Río Camuy, between Hatillo and Camuy; Punta Cabuyones, in Ponce; Finca Nolla, in Camuy; Punta Petrona, in Santa Isabel; Punta Guillarte, in Arroyo; Lucía Beach, in Yabucoa; and Mar Chiquita, in Manatí.
All these areas have in common that they are located in coastal areas. In total, they cover about 7,420 acres on land and 5,621 in sea areas, according to the Planning Board. Also, they were designated as natural reserves by executive orders, issued in December 2016 at the end of the administration of Alejandro García Padilla. The action contributed to increase the space of protected land on the island from 8% to 17%.
But Rosselló annulled the designations, after the Planning Board pointed out that the process was done hastily and in a hurry, without public hearings, fostering conflicts on the ground and using documents that are not the current state of law.
If the intention of the Planning Board was to correct the failures that it detected, it was not necessary to annul the designation of the properties as natural reserves, agreed the lawyers Ruth Santiago and Gabriel Vázquez, the professor in Environmental Planning Felix Aponte and the director of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry of the Federal Forestry Service, Ariel Lugo.
“They could be corrected without canceling them. What is argued in the executive orders for the annulment is a bit strange and with the experience I have in this, there are other factors and anonymous actors that could have influenced that decision, “said Aponte, who was a member of the Planning Board under of the administration of Sila María Calderón.
He argued that the action is “strange and unusual”, since it is not Planning Board’s tradition to review previous decisions without being preceded by a public controversy. “The tradition is that the already approved resolutions are respected, because it is a collegial body. It is as if the judges of the Supreme Court began to review the decisions of previous judges. The same goes for the executive orders of the governors, “he said.
Aponte added that the argument that the designations were based on a regulation that is no longer in force would imply, then, that all decisions and location consultations previously approved by the Planning Board using such a statute would have to be reversed. “That seems very suspicious to me. There are no specific substantive or technical arguments, “he reiterated.
According to information from the Planning Board on these reservations, only one of them had no public hearings. This is the case of Finca Nolla, in Camuy.
For Saadé Llorens, in this case, it is striking that the property is owned by the government, that is, there was no controversy regarding any expropriation or acquisition process, since such a procedure was already completed.
In fact, he added that the annulment “is more serious in this case,” since previously public money had been allocated through legislation to buy these lands in order to declare a natural reserve.
“In the case of Playa Lucía, it is also worrisome because a law was already passed to create the reserve and the Planning Board can not go above the law,” said Saadé Llorens. “The reasons that were given did not merit the annulment. None of the reasons given validates the decision taken at face value, “he added.
Meanwhile, the former president of the Planning Board, Luis García Pelatti, and under whose mandate these reserves were designated, said that the action was illegal. “By law, plans and reservations, once adopted by the Planning Board and approved by the governor, come into effect. The derogation of a plan or reserve requires a process of public discussion. For those who forgot, the Northeast Ecological Corridor had a similar process 10 years ago and even the Federal Prosecutor intervened, “he said.
After the decision of annulment, the Planning Board stated that the goal is to maintain natural reserves, but taking into account the opinion and needs of the residents of those areas.
The Planning Board informed that, once a public notice announcing the intention to make a sectoral plan is published, indicate its objectives and the way to participate in the process, public hearings will be held by the end of the year.
As part of that process, it will hold meetings with mayors, with communities, interest groups and public audiences, the Planning Board informed in a written communication at the request of El Nuevo Día.
Three of the canceled reserves appear as private property, according to the Planning Board. Punta Cabuyones is owned by the non-governmental organization For Nature; the Río Camuy reserve appears as private and the owner is not identified; and Punta Petrona appears in the name of William Figueroa Rodríguez and the company Palmeras del Sur. To this company, the Department of State revoked its certificate of incorporation for not submitting financial statements.
The Mar Chiquita reserve appears under the name of Israel Kopek and the company Mar Chiquita Development. Also, it appears in the registry of corporations of the Department of State as canceled for breaching the requirement to submit financial statements. Both cancellations are dated April 16, 2014.
Lessons of Hurricane Maria
Meanwhile, Lugo is concerned that, after this action, there is an undeclared intention to make development viable in coastal areas. “Hurricane Maria taught us that we have to get away from the sea, and these protected areas in the maritime zone are the defense against the rise in sea level. Someone may say that climate change is something theoretical, but the increase in sea level is real and is being measured, “said the scientist.
Vázquez, who teaches the Environmental Legislation course at the Graduate School of Environmental Affairs of the Metropolitan University, explained that it is legitimate for the Planning Board to annul these designations and decided to evaluate the entire process again.
“They could modify and correct the process without canceling it, but they could cancel it to start it again. The problem is that these actions are often motivated by the ideas of the governments of the day. You have to be aware of what will happen in the Planning Board, “he warned.
When the news about the annulment spread, the president of the Planning Board, María Gordillo, declared that these lands will not be vulnerable. He said they are protected for being “specially protected rustic land”. This classification appears in the Autonomous Municipalities Act of 1991 and the Land Use Plan (PUT). It refers to that land in which urban use is not contemplated because of its topographic, aesthetic, archaeological or ecological value.
This classification supposes a level of protection. The problem is that it is subject to being modified or reclassified by an autonomous municipality, according to its public policy. Meanwhile, a natural reserve designation provides stronger protection because it specifies the value, functions and natural services of that ecosystem, involves the preparation of management plans for the resource and, sometimes, protections contained in laws, agreed Aponte, Lugo and Saadé Llorens.
In addition, a specially protected rustic floor does not imply that the land is immune to construction. As an example, Santiago said that the list of critical projects of the Promise Law lists solar energy works and, in some properties under this classification, the installation of solar panel farms has been approved.
The president of Para la Naturaleza, Fernando Lloveras, said that Rosselló’s action constitutes a setback and a break in the commitment embraced by leaders of all parties. That commitment was to increase the areas conserved on the island to reach 33% by 2033.
On the government platform, on page 56 of the “Plan for Puerto Rico,” Rosselló highlights the environmental issue and even announces his intention to improve and expand the offerings in natural reserves using public-private partnerships.
“That repeal is a regrettable regress of that goal that we have established as a country. Most are coastal public lands that are protected to save lives, “said Lloveras, who announced that his organization is analyzing the reasons given by the Planning Board, then take some action or dialogue with the agency to reverse the decision.
For Nature Company owns 600 acres in one of the voided reserves: Punta Cabuyones, in Ponce, which covers a total of 2,442 acres. This area is a terrain that is a mitigation of the Corps of Engineers, as part of an attempt to address the impact caused to wetlands during the construction of the Port of the Americas.
Translated from this article written in Spanish by El Nuevo Dia, a Puerto Rican News organization: