Ambergris Caye is one of the fastest growing tourism destinations in the country and as a result, is challenged with the opportunities and advantages brought on by economic development. Too often, while development takes place in the interest of promoting productive tourism activities, there is failure to recognize the basic objectives of long term protection of the natural resources of the coastal zone. This is where the long awaited Ambergris Caye Master Plan comes in. On Tuesday, April 13th, 2010, members of the community joined Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute (CZMAI) for a consultation on what will be the islandís Master Plan. Held at the Lions Den, the consultation had the participation of Malaika Cardona, consultant and Camilla Cardona, the planís civil engineer.
People in attendance were eager to hear the plans that will structure and zone development on the Caye. In our haste to compete we ignore the need to plan hence, the process becomes one of crisis management and shortsightedness due to the fact that consideration was not taken as to what the cumulative impacts of the development activities would have on the reef and other sensitive ecosystems. An original Master Plan was drafted in 1989 however it was never passed into law. This original draft has now been re-worked with the assistance of CZMAI, as well as other key stakeholders which included the San Pedro Town Council, the Ambergris Caye Local Building Authority, marine expert Dr. Melanie McField, World Wildlife Fundís Nadia Bood and Hol Chan Marine Reserve manager Miguel Alamilla. This Master Plan is intended to be used as a regulatory and vision document both by the public and private interests to carry out development in the proper place and direct it away from those sections of the community that are ecologically sensitive and should remain undisturbed in their natural state.
During the meeting, issues which were found to be affecting Ambergris Caye were discussed. Among those were rapid large scale, unsustainable development without the proper management and monitoring mechanisms in place to mitigate negative environmental impacts, excessive building density within the Town core, excessive and illegal dredging and excessive human activity within the boundaries of the Bachalar Chico Marine Reserve.
During her presentation, Malaika Cardona offered a few recommendations such as to manage growth in a manner that is consistent with the desires of the residents by consolidating the zoning and land utilization and subdivision act to simplify the application and review process and eliminate the possibility of incompatibility between two laws. She also proposed the incorporation of flexible zoning regulations which will direct specific types of development to set sites with particular developmental codes. Land use in the town center must be maintained in accordance to the master plan, ensuring that any expansions or construction done within the town core abide by the legal boundaries set forth by the Central Building Authority in pursuant to the Belize Building Act. All necessary infrastructure must be provided, and frequent inspection visits to the proposed development sites must be made to ensure that they are adhering to what has been approved. Penalties must be implemented in case of mis-management of the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve, especially when there is failure to adhere to development procedures set forth by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Department of the Environment.
Camilla Cardona went on to explain the zoning of the island and what will in essence be incorporated into the townís Master Plan. The Land Use zones are as follows:
*Residential: - areas of residential and all other purposes directly related with residential areas including schools, public space small professional offices, home industries, place of worship, playing areas, social facilities and small scale local shops. It includes hotels, apartments, buildings, vacation homes, guesthouses, motels, etc.
*Commercial: - includes stores, offices, banks, insurance broker, restaurants, hotels, bars, and repair shops. It also includes residential use, which might be found above shops or with commercial uses.
*Industrial: - includes areas for manufacturing, and land for warehousing, Storage, building contracting, port facilities, trucking and distribution.
*Open spaces/Conservation areas: - areas designated for conservation purposes, areas to be left in its natural state, sixty-six feet (66í) strip along the coast to be kept for public use of all shorelines; parks and public recreational space.
*Special Coordinated Development Areas: - are areas that would be comprehensively planned in partnership between the owners and the planning authorities given their highly ecologically sensitive nature.
A breakdown of the zones can also be found on the Master Plan but briefly, Residential is being divided into four (4) categories Ė R1, R2, R3, and R4 with R1 being the lowest density residential area. In the R1 zone, site coverage will not exceed 30% with the net density not exceeding one dwelling per acre and the maximum number of lots per acres will be one. R2ís site coverage will not exceed 35% and not exceeding a net density of four dwellings per acre. R3 is the medium density residential and will have a site coverage of 40% and not exceeding eight dwellings per acre while R4, being the high density residential, will have a site coverage of 60% and not exceeding twelve dwellings per acre. All residential zones include individual setbacks and building types and heights.
When it comes to Commercial Zoning, the Master Plan makes provision for two types: Town Core/Central Business District and General Commercial. Within the Town Core/Central Business District there lie many specifications and among them are: that the building heights not exceed three stories or 38 feet and that parking space should be provided as 1 per every 250 square feet of floor space with the same specifications going for the General Commercial Zone.
The Open spaces and Conservation Areas applies to areas designated for conservation purposes, areas to be left in its natural state, sixty-six feet (66í) strip along the coast to be kept for public use of all shorelines; and it applies to parks and public recreational space. Cardona explained that the entire beach from Robles Point north is a known nesting site for three species of turtles, two of which are endangered. This is the only point along the coast at which the reef is a national resource, which plays a critical role not only in fisheries, but also via the protection it provides for the coast, and nourishment to beach areas, and as such its integrity should be the subject of aggressive protection. The Master Plan makes the recommendations that since the area in question is privately owned, that all possibility for further subdivision should be eliminated and that the area should be zoned as R1; the lowest permitted density, prohibit pier construction and that consideration should be given to its acquisition by the public sector for conservation purposes.
After the presentation, the consultation held a question and answer session where members of the community voiced their concerns. Some strongly suggested that the document be legalized (which it will once it has been legally processed) so as to cement the regulations which will guide development on the island. Other concerns included: who will enforce the rules and regulations? If the Minister would have the final say, as far as development goes, when it relates to approving certain structures? And, what will happen to the controversial developments already being constructed? How about transparency?
According to Vincent Gillett of CZMAI, who lead the presentation explained that the Master Plan is available for viewing and it is highly recommended in order to understand the entire plan. Kindly email Gillett at email@example.com to get your copy. Recommendations are being accepted and Gillett explained that that is the reasoning behind the consultation, to get the feedback from the community. It is believed that once the Master Plan has been re-drafted following the implementations of the recommendations, the final Master Plan should be legalized by September.