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Residents mull legal options after NEPA greenlights enviro permit for Dreams hotel

Published:Friday | July 15, 2022 | 12:10 AMHuntley Medley - Associate Business Editor

Residents of Montego Freeport are said to be huddling with their lawyers as they consider their options to stop or slow the construction of the 281-room Dreams hotel, which the National Environment and Planning Agency, NEPA, announced this week had been granted an environmental permit.

The permit application was submitted to NEPA in October last year by the hotel’s developer, Seawind Key Investments Limited, SKIL, and was conditionally approved by NEPA, the Natural Resources Conservation Authority, NRCA, and the Town and Country Planning Authority, TCPA, in May.

This week’s decision puts a firm stamp of approval on the initial decision, but other clearances remain for the hotel.

“We have updated the members of NRCA and TCPA in detail on the consultations with you and the developers. Having examined all the issues, the authorities maintain their positions to grant the environmental permit and outline planning approval to SKIL for the development of a new block of rooms on the property,” NEPA CEO Peter Knight announced to Freeport residents during an online meeting on Wednesday.

The planned construction, which, according to SKIL, involves 11 floors, will complement some 850 rooms which it already owns on the peninsula through its Secrets Wild Orchid, Secrets St James and Breathless resorts. Dreams is to be built on more than four acres of land next to the Secrets hotels and across the road from Breathless, where a three-floor car park and leisure activity centre is also to be constructed.

President of the Freeport Peninsula Association Ian Dear and the association’s lawyer, Gavin Goffe, have not been commenting on the planned legal moves, but a Freeport resident told the Financial Gleaner that legal options and the financing of a legal challenge were being discussed with lawyers.

“These things cost money and I believe the residents are looking at how the legal representation can be financed,” the homeowner said.

In Wednesday’s meeting with residents and other stakeholders, Knight said that through consultations brokered by NEPA, SKIL had agreed that for the 300-car parking structure, it would increase the setback from the land boundary with the neighbouring Emerald Cay townhouse complex to nine metres, three times the legal requirement of three metres.

The addition of two floors to the existing parking structure has been among the contentious issues pertaining to the development.

However, the extended setback and planned landscaping of the structure appear to have failed to appease some residents. Businessman and resident Yoni Epstein noted that heavy vehicular traffic by hotel staff remained a concern, making an expansion of the roadway a necessary prerequisite for the hotel development.

“There is a massive problem already, not so much from tourists nor locals coming to stay at the hotel, but the staff. And as Jamaica continues to develop and to prosper, more and more employees have the ability to buy cars, and I think that is more the concern from the road traffic than obviously the tourists. And when you think about pollution from the vehicles, as well as noise pollution, next to a residential community, I think that is the greatest concern about the parking lot.” Epstein said during the online meeting.

Knight responded that all the residents’ concerns have been discussed with the hotel developer, and some of those concerns will be part of the statutory and non-statutory reserve matters that the developer will be required to meet before full planning permit is granted by the regulatory agency. He added that while NEPA did not have the mandate to comment on issues pertaining to roads, the National Works Agency was part of NEPA’s technical committee which considers environmental planning permit applications. National Water Commission and the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management are also part of the committee.

A meeting between NEPA and representatives of the hotel developer is scheduled for today, Friday. Among the matters expected to be raised by NEPA is a recent complaint that SKIL, or its agents, denied a resident access to the beach.

“We have written to the management of SKIL and their attorneys on what we view as a breach of the prescriptive rights. We wish to restate that when SKIL resubmits for full planning approval, that will also require an amendment to the environmental permit, and we have to be satisfied, as we have done elsewhere, that the prescriptive rights of the residents are protected and that they are preserved. Preservation and retention of prescriptive rights under the Beach Control Act is non-negotiable,” Knight made clear.

He added that ‘outline planning approval’ does not give SKIL permission to build, as all statutory and non-statutory matters raised with them by the environmental regulator must be fully satisfied in the detailed submission the developers must now make, and approval obtained from the NRCA and the TCPA prior to the start of construction. It also means, according to the NEPA CEO, that the local planning authority, the St James Municipal Corporation, cannot grant building approval for Dreams until the final environmental approval is given by NEPA.

Meanwhile, the NEPA CEO is defending the agency’s decision not to require that SKIL conduct a new environmental impact assessment study before undertaking the hotel construction.

The initial assessment was done in 2007, when the Secrets resorts were being developed.

“The modality used to scan applications for other hotel developments presently undergoing expansion and upgrade is the exact modality applied in screening the application by SKIL, and like those other hotel expansions, we determined that an EIA was not required,” Knight said.