Urban planner Van Ieperen departs to Australia

POSTED: 07/30/12 1:46 PM

“Resistance against change is part of the process”

GREAT BAY / By Hilbert Haar – “St. Maarten is not used to giving its citizens a voice. And yet this is necessary to gain support for the zoning plans that are under development. The government does not have a lot of experience with these processes, but one should not be afraid of resistance against change. It is part of the process.”
Hendrik Jan van Ieperen arrived five-and-a-half years ago from Rotterdam in St. Maarten as a policy associate (hoofdmedewerker) at what was then the department of Vrom (Public Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment), where he later became the acting head. Now he has ended his tenure on the island and he is on his way to a new challenge. Towards the end of August he will be behind a desk in Wagga Wagga, a city with 75, 000 inhabitants in New South Wales, Australia, as its strategic planner for urban planning and traffic.
Wagga Wagga, situated smack in the middle between Sydney and Melbourne will remind the 45-year old of St. Maarten at times; in the summer temperatures will rise above 40 degrees Celsius, but the winters are mild.
Looking back at his time in St. Maarten, Van Ieperen has a lot of pleasant memories, but he also experienced his share of turmoil.
“I arrived here two months before Delano Richardson became head of the department,” he remembers.
It did not take long for Richardson to fall from grace over an attempt to bribe Blue Mall developer Luis Gioia. Richardson lost his job over it, and his position remained vacant for a long time. Van Ieperen once applied for the position, but he was rejected.
“I was doing the work anyway. It seemed nice to head a department but that changes if you don’t have the resources to execute your tasks,” he says now.
Overcoming his doubts, he later accepted the post on a temporary basis.
“I did not want to play the policeman for the personnel,” he says. But during the last year, he realized that there were no more possibilities to grow. Age 45 seemed like the right moment for a career change.
“We did not really achieve a lot in the past 5.5 years. The idea was to get the policy in order and to write the zoning plans that should have been made already seventeen years ago. But there is a lack of resources, of personnel and of priorities. It is a very difficult process,” he says.
Recently, the situation has changed though. Two draft zoning plans are ready to go towards the decision makers in the ministry. The Netherlands has made resources available to hire a consultant.
“But the capacity is still not sufficient.”
One of the first public meetings to discuss a zoning plan took place in Simpson Bay last year, but politicians balked at the storm of criticism citizens unleashed on that occasion.
“It’s a pity, since this process needs an open debate about the issues. The whole intention is to offer an opportunity to voice people’s views and opinions. Now it seems that as a civil servant you do not get the trust anymore for such meetings,” Van Ieperen says.
“The minister would actually prefer to have complete control over these meetings. After that first meeting they hit the brakes and made the Secretary General and someone of the head of the communication department attend, so that they could filter everything. That makes the process more complicated to organize; there are a lot of these meetings in the planning stages, but now everybody has to attend, the agenda’s must check out and everything has to be checked and double checked via the minister.”
St. Maarten is divided in twelve zoning areas. There are draft plans for two areas: Simpson Bay and the conservation areas. These concepts contain the points of departure and they are presented in public meetings before the department gets to work on preliminary design. That plan is then again presented in a public meeting before it goes to the parliament for approval.
The government works with a “protection through development” approach for conservation, Van Ieperen says.
“The idea is that by developing certain areas you generate resources to protect the rest.”
Under the new minister of Vromi William Marlin the plans for St. Maarten’s most famous conservation area – the Emilio Wilson Estate – have once more changed.
“The owner retains a part for residential development and the rest will become the government’s property.”
Word is that the Rainforest Adventure Park is off the books, because Minister Marlin wants to build Link 7 (that connects the estate via St. Peters to Concordia on the French side). The adventure park developer apparently is not interested in a building a cable-lift that offers tourists views of a “highway.”
The plan for the residential development “looks an awful lot like the old plans of the former Emilio Wilson Estate B.V.,” Van Ieperen says.
“I really don’t understand how politicians who said two years ago that they would protect the area are able to come up with such a plan.”
Maybe the answer to this question is to be found in the Erop – the legislation dating back to the end of 1993 that aimed to have zoning plans for the whole island within five years. It also introduced an interim-regulation that required developers to obtain a planning permit for their projects until the new zoning plans would be established. That regulation was extended every time with five years, until the last extension expired at the end of last year.
“Currently it is no longer necessary to obtain a planning permit. This means that developers are able to subdivide parcels as they please,” Van Ieperen says.
“They do not need the minister’s permission anymore. It is not a free for all though, because they will still need a building permit and policies such as the Hillsides Policy are still in place.”
There has been quite some discussion about the monument permit former Culture Minister Rhoda Arrindell signed for the development of the Rainforest Adventure Park.
“If a plan does not (partially) demolish any structures, the developer still needs a monument permit but this does not require an advice from the Monument Council. That council still has not been appointed,” Van Ieperen says.
That is the opinion of the new department head Hans Sellink and based on his advice the Monument Council was not heard before the permit was issued.
The rules for publishing building permits remain another bone of contention.
“If you read the legislation you could conclude that publishing is mandatory. But in this case the conclusion was that this was not necessary. That does not take away the options to appeal, because citizens have the freedom to object to every permit the government issues. But publishing permits is still a major flaw in St. Maarten. In my opinion the ministry ought to publish every permit. It really is not a big deal.”
While there is no lack of rules for building and for developing projects, enforcing them is a different piece of cake.
“St. Maarten has a problem with consistent enforcement,” Van Ieperen acknowledges. “Enforcement is also done selectively. I remember a guy who had a small roadside bar opposite the old cinema on the Pondfill. He had built a little lean-to and they came with bulldozers to take it down because he had no permit for it. Other than that, demolishing illegal structures by order of the ministry is rare. It usually only happens at the instruction of the court.”
The rules for what is allowed and what is not are not always clear, Van Ieperen says, adding quickly that this is in itself not a problem.
“We need a policy to be able to take decisions and if there is a dispute about these decisions we ought to leave decisions up to the courts. We should not be afraid of that, because it leads to jurisprudence, and it gives clarity for the future.”
The zoning plans under development contain plenty of rules, though they also offer room for exceptions.
“That has to be an open and transparent procedure. Unfortunately in St. Maarten we have problems with being transparent. We would prefer to do everything behind closed doors. The causeway over the lagoon is a typical example. It became a private investment about which the government apparently does not have to say anything,” Van Ieperen says.
Van Ieperen leaves the island with plenty of pleasant memories
“The nicest thing is that I have been able to help people with their permits. In general, civil servants here are not used to being service-oriented towards citizens. I have made a habit of explaining things and to inform people about their options. Most people are really prepared to listen to your arguments.”
In the past five years many things have changed for the better on the island, Van Ieperen says. He mentions the upgrading of Back Street as an example.
“Unfortunately these projects often last too long and the costs are often too high.”
There have, of course, also been frustrations.
“It cannot be so that a minister takes a decision and then asks our department to write an accompanying advice. The minister should ask for an advice and then take a decision. Ministers are entirely free to diverge from an advice; they do not have to follow it. But it still seems normal to push for a change of advice rather than deviate from it.”
The public nature of the government’s inner workings has not improved, Van Ieperen says. “Before 10-10-10 every decision went through the Executive Council. Now everything happens via a single minister, they have their own shop. There is no discussion and decisions are not published. Ministers are able to do a lot without the interference of anybody. And although parliament should control the ministers, it often seems the other way around. In that sense the public nature of the decision making process has deteriorated.”

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