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Plan to build homes at St Augustine nursery stays—Minister

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

There will be no turning back on the Cabinet decision to develop lands in the area of the St Augustine nursery, unless the Town and Country Planning Division and the Environmental Management Agency fail to give the approvals necessary to the Housing Development Corporation for the construction of houses on several acres of the site.

But Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat is also assuring that the St Augustine nursery will not be affected and there will be expansion of the nursery if it is required.

Rambharat told the T&T Guardian that the Cabinet took the decision “fully cognisant of all the issues and there is no turning back not at this time.”

Rambharat response came after the president of the Agriculture Society Dhano Sookhoo hosted a news conference accusing the Agriculture Minister of failing the farmers.

She appealed to him to identify a site other than the St Augustine nurseries which is now down to “53 acres” to build the houses.

But Rambharat said the land in question is 200 acres which starts at the WASA headquarters and goes all the way down to the HDC East Grove site.

“It is a mixture of residences, offices, the St Augustine Nursery, the forestry nursery and some vacant land,” he said.

Sookhoo, who was accompanied by former agriculture minister Vasant Bharath, noted that the land ear-marked for HDC Housing had a “soil type that was very rare, you cannot go to Sangre Grande or Caroni to get this soil type, it is here and in Chaguaramas and they want to take it to build houses.”

On the land, she said, there are hundreds of species of plants some existing for over two decades, “this is not something you can take down today and have it grown elsewhere. This has been providing 38 different varieties of food crops,” which she said included breadfruit, avocadoes, balata, caimaite, five fingers, “when you destroy the nursery that is what will be destroyed,” she said.

Sookhoo said the society had written several letters, including one to the Commissioner of State Lands Paula Drakes, who had indicated to her that she was passionate about agricultural farming in T&T.

Appealing to Drakes, she said, “We the farmers have full confidence in you that you will not sign the change of use for this land. Let the country know the power that you have and don’t sign for the change of use of the land.”

Letters were also sent to the EMA, the chairman of the Tunapuna Piarco Regional Corporation, Minister of Planning Camille Robinson-Regis and the Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley with a request for him to have a “conversation” with them on the issue. She said “we expect Prime Minister, you boast that you are a farmer, we expect you to be championing the cause and reverse the decision of the Cabinet.”

Rambharat told the T&T Guardian “this has been two years in the making.”

Admitting to understanding that people want to “maximise the use of the best soil,” Rambharat said sometimes we going to come across a situation where we have to strike a balance. Up to Monday, he said, he was in Orange Grove, “all we talk about Orange Grove and that valuable land, not a single agricultural lease has been given out for the land in that area.”

Asked if as the Agriculture Minister he was concerned that more agricultural land was being given to build houses, he said, “it is very difficult to get land to do this type of housing on the East-West corridor, and we could make this land available for the HDC because it is under-utilised.” He observed that similar land was used for the construction of the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex in Mt Hope.

Under a 1992 land use policy, every application for the use of land goes to the Town and Country Division, and then as part of the Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC), the EMA gets involved.

Rambharat believes there will be no issue in getting the necessary clearance for the change of land use although the land is “grade A soil,” because “it is already a dense residential area.”

He sought to assure that “neither the St Augustine Nursery nor the forestry nursery will be affected,” telling the T&T Guardian “even after we make this land available we will have more than 100 acres that we can make available for the nursery if they want to expand.”

Asked about the citrus, which Sookhoo said will be destroyed, Rambharat said the citrus had the citrus greening disease.

“We have a report from someone in Florida,” on how to deal with the disease, “and the advice is to destroy the affected trees wherever they are in the country, including the St Augustine nurseries, and to do the propagation of the citrus nurseries in a more controlled environment.”

Because of that, he said, “we are building some new nurseries on the western side of the 220-acre parcel.”

A plan to voter pad?

Last Friday, Robinson-Regis sought to dispel allegations that the construction of the houses was linked to an attempt by the Government to voter pad the St Joseph constituency. Bharath who attended yesterday’s news conference said it was clear that was the intention, “by putting 500 houses in St Joseph we know what the Government is attempting to do,” he said.

St Joseph is one of the five marginal seats which can sway the outcome of an election.

In a 2013 by-election Terrence Deyalsingh won the St Joseph seat with 6,356 votes against the then UNC candidate Ian Alleyne who got 5,577 votes. The ILP’s Om Lalla got 1,976 votes.

In the 2015 general election the PNM’s Deyalsingh captured 10,356 or 53.77% of the votes cast to Bharath’s 8,903 or 45.44 per cent of the votes cast.


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