By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Nassau cemetery's expansion plans have been hit with a government-imposed "stop order" following a furious backlash from residents of neighbouring communities.
Adrian White, the Town Planning Committee's chairman, yesterday confirmed to Tribune Business that no approvals had either been given or were pending for the construction-type activities by Woodlawn Gardens Cemetery that have alarmed persons living in Danottage Estates and Village Estates.
Residents, many of whom have signed a 200-strong petition in opposition, told this newspaper that their quality of life is under threat after Woodlawn Gardens opened up their previously
"dead end" streets (cul de sacs) to funeral traffic attending burials at the cemetery.
This action appears designed to give vehicles access to a perimeter road that Woodlawn Gardens has constructed around the border of its property, in what Danottage Estates and Village Estates inhabitants believe is an attempt to open up the cemetery's northern section after its southern portion became overcrowded.
Besides fears of increased traffic congestion and parking problems, residents are also concerned about potential health, environmental and safety problems stemming from burial plots in the cemetery's newly-accessible northern section being located right next to their property boundaries.
BJ Clancy-Deveaux, a member of Dannottage Estates Neighborhood Association, told Tribune Business that the issue has "huge ramifications" stretching beyond the immediate impact on her community as Woodlawn Gardens' activities appeared to represent another example of unregulated, non-permitted development.
Arguing that Bahamians "whether in Bain Town or Lyford Cay" should be concerned about upholding the rule of law, and ensuring their country does not become an unplanned urban sprawl such as Haiti, Mrs Clancy-Deveaux said was residents who first alerted government agencies in late February to what was afoot after heavy trucks and backhoes began rumbling down their streets.
Desmond Bannister, minister of works, confirming he was aware of the Woodlawn Gardens issue, pledged to "act as quickly as possible to ensure those communities don't have the character of their streets changed".
He promised that the Government is "not going to allow the opening up" of the dead-end roads that turn into Danottage Estates off Soldier Road, where Woodlawn Gardens is also located, acknowledging that he had seen photos which "caused me some concern".
Mr White, the Town Planning Committee chair, said the body planned to invite both residents and the cemetery's representatives to a hearing in two weeks' time to allow each to vent their respective cases.
He explained that it would take the form of "a fact-finding mission" where Woodlawn Gardens would be asked to explain what authorisation it believe it had to undertake the clearance and perimeter road construction.
"There are no approvals in place and there is no application pending," Mr White told Tribune Business of the cemetery's activities to-date. "The works that have been carried out are without approval, and a 'stop order' has been issued.
"We will be having a hearing with the residents from Danottage Estates as well as Village Estates, as well as representatives from the cemetery who, we understand, are represented by attorneys from Dupuch & Turnquest. The invitation is going to go out for them to attend the next public hearing, which is two weeks from today [yesterday]."
Mr White revealed that Woodlawn Gardens was issued with a "stop order" on February 25, 2020, when Melanie Roach, the director of works, sent a letter demanding that it "close off" all the former dead-end roads it had opened up to preserve "the safety and security" of area residents as well as traffic flows on Soldier Road.
"They were told to close off any access on public roads abutting their boundaries due to safety and security concerns for those areas as well as Soldier Road," he reiterated. "There isn't any mention of any approvals in anything I've seen."
Lawrence Lightbourn, Woodlawn Gardens' principal manager, and Caryl Lashley, the Dupuch & Turnquest attorney and partner said to be representing the cemetery, did not return Tribune Business phone calls seeking comment yesterday despite detailed messages being left as to the nature of this
It is uncertain, though, whether Woodlawn Gardens has fully complied with the "stop order". A Tribune staffer who attended a funeral at Woodlawn Gardens this past weekend said they were surprised to access the cemetery through one of the just-opened roads, adding that it felt like they were driving through someone's garden.
And residents confirmed last weekend was the first when burial-bound traffic appeared to have been directed to use Linkford Street, as well as many other previously closed-off roads through Danottage Estates, to access Woodlawn Gardens' northern portion.
"We have learned that funeral homes have been advised to direct grieving persons to Linkford, Calvin and Dawson dead-ends, and that Linkford - where a gate was erected at some point - is the primary access point for caskets, maintenance and road-related construction, and has been for quite a while," Mrs Clancy-Deveaux said.
Mr White, meanwhile, said the upcoming hearing would only be open to representatives of the cemetery and residents because the requirement for it to be public had not been triggered since no formal planning approvals had been sought.
"It's a fact-finding mission, so to speak," he explained of the hearing. "What we're going to be seeking is to receive information from Woodlawn Gardens that it has acted on, and which in their view gives them the authorisation to carry out the activities they have that are objected to strongly by the residents of surrounding communities that adjoin property previously developed by Woodlawn Gardens.
"They appear to be expanding Woodlawn Gardens' area, and possibly burial lots, by the clearing of lots and perimeter fencing that has opened up direct access by vehicles.... from Danottage Estates and Village Estates. That's our understanding."
Mrs Clancy-Deveaux said Woodlawn Gardens had sought to open every dead-end road "from the BTC exchange building on Soldier Road all the way down to the BPL building". Revealing that there had been no public meetings or consultation as required by the Planning and Subdivisions Act, she added that residents were only alerted to the cemetery's intentions in late February by the dump trucks and heavy vehicles traversing their tight residential streets.
"It means that burials will take place on the other side of the fence from people's homes," Mrs Clancy-Deveaux charged. "If they put a perimeter road on their property that abuts all the residents on their back, a lot of those people will have their doors opening right up to that.
"Cemeteries around the world have a wall. People are going to park all over those dead end streets. Even if they put bollards in people will walk through. It's a very big concern. We've had three public meetings and they've been extremely well attended. We have 200 signatures on the petition and counting.
"People are irate, and have been using their vehicles to close off streets that were dead ends. It's not just a 'me and three people' issue. It's an everybody issue... We alerted the public sector agencies to this. It was all done cloaked by Woodlawn."
Mrs Clancy-Deveaux said residents, and their Associations, took their case to the planning agencies yesterday. She said they met briefly with Charles Zonicle, director of physical planning, Mr Francis from the Ministry of Works' engineering unit, and left documents with the secretaries for Ms Roach and Cora Bain-Colebrooke, the Ministry of Works permanent secretary.
"This has huge ramifications, and not just for our communities," she told Tribune Business. "It doesn't matter if you're in Bain Town or Lyford Cay or wherever. There are rules and they have to be complied with. Otherwise we're going in the direction of Port o Paix and no one wants that for our island.
"This issue falls within the context of what kind of island we want New Providence to be. Every neighbourhood, community, subdivision, and gated all need to be protected for their residential development lest we further dissolve into a hodge-podge both unregulated and unprotected."
Mr Bannister, confirming he was aware of the issues at Woodlawn Gardens, told this newspaper: "I was shown some photos that caused me some concern, and sent it off to the director of works to have that stopped.
"We are aware of it, and are going to do something to ensure those roads still maintain some of their identity. The ministry is going to take action in relation to that. I have communicated with my office, and it is a concern; a serious concern that we have to address.
"Those neighbourhoods are entitled to have their privacy. This has caused lots of concern. We need to act as quickly as possible to ensure those communities don't have the character of those streets changed. We're not going to allow the opening up of those streets," he continued.
"Be assured we're going to take action in relation to it. The ministry is going to be taking action to protect the character of those neighbourhoods."