So, You Want to Build a House… Examining the EIA process
Just about every visitor to the Virgin Islands has the same dream. Lounging in a hammock, under a palm tree, perhaps sipping a pina colada—it’s easy to imagine thoughts of chucking it all in and moving to paradise. It is not always just a dream. For some, the lure becomes irresistible.
Maybe that magic moment occurred while standing on a bit of vacant land and gazing out at sailing yachts drifting down the Channel. Maybe it happened while reading this magazine and realizing that it is possible. However it happened, you now find yourself seriously considering the purchase of land and building that special dream house. So, how do you go about it?
Luckily, there is plenty of information and help available about the mechanics of buying land and building a house. There are real estate agents, lawyers, and others who will help guide you through the legalities. Then, there are experienced architects who can help turn that idyllic vision into a set of drawings. So, where do you begin?
Obviously, the first step is to find out if you can buy the land and build a house on it. This is usually just a matter of getting the right guidance. However, before you take the plunge, it might be good to do a little extra homework.
Building a house, like any land development project, requires government approval from the Planning Authority. In the BVI, this is guided by the Town & Country Planning Department. Every country has similar agencies designed to provide for organized and planned growth. The basic idea is to assure that construction is safe for people and is harmonious with the environment. The process is reasonable and generally easy to follow. Getting approval usually entails some sort of environmental assessment. This will vary depending on the specific location, type of construction, and various other factors. Such an assessment, or an Environmental Impact Assessment—commonly known as an EIA—follows clear guidelines.
Let’s take a closer look at the requirements. In this series, we will examine the EIA process of building a house, or any small development, from the initial application, through the construction phase, to your final goal of swinging in your hammock under the swaying palms.
Once you have found that perfect piece of land, you might ask yourself some basic questions, and perhaps follow up with professional advice. Before beginning the process of buying the property, you may wish to find out if there are environmental constraints to building, or other restrictions. Your legal representative can help with some of it. A good architect can also be valuable at this stage. An environmental audit, or preliminary assessment, is a good place to start since it may highlight important issues that could cause problems later.
Since the approval will almost certainly require an EIA, a preliminary assessment could save you time and expense later. Let’s begin with a brief review of the approval process.
Usually, the first step to government approval is to submit the planning application. This starts the clock ticking with subsequent steps as outlined by the planning department.
Next is the preparation of the Environmental Screening Form. This form provides a brief description of the intended development and gives the department sufficient information to understand the application. Based on the information provided, the department will categorize the project as A, B, or C. Those letters signify the degree of impact assessment required from no assessment to a full EIA as described in the guidelines. A proposal designated as an A or B will require an assessment with terms of reference tendered by the department. In subsequent articles, we will consider the various types of EIA required and what goes into each.
Since the process of buying land, designing a house, and going through the construction phase represents a significant investment of resources and time, a little homework is worth the effort. A preliminary environmental audit may turn up conditions that could significantly affect, or even halt, the type of construction you have in mind. Such conditions could be ecological, such as the existence of endangered species of plants or animals, or perhaps fragile wetlands that could be negatively impacted by development. Conditions could be geological, such as unstable slopes that could give way during an earthquake, or sites vulnerable to a tsunami. Conditions could also be hydrological, such as stream channels (locally called ghuts) that may flood during the torrential downpours that sometimes accompany tropical weather systems. Any of these conditions, and a few others, should be considered before embarking on the creation of your dream home. While such conditions may not stop you in your tracks, they will often pose challenges that must be overcome with careful planning and design.
In futurearticles, we will take a closer look at each step in the process, beginning with the environmental audit, through the various types of EIA required and finally the important components of environmental monitoring and mitigation so your dream home becomes part of the paradise you came to enjoy.