Senior Multimedia Reporter
Despite notices that the erection of a building should not be completed after incurring several breaches, a new multimillion-dollar three-storey structure has been constructed on 35 & 37 De Verteuil Street in Woodbrook, Port-of-Spain.
The building is now in dispute.
And, according to documents obtained by the Sunday Guardian, the lack of enforcement by the country’s Town and Country Planning Division led to the structure being completed.
Kerry Pariag, the Assistant Director of the Town and Country Planning Division confirmed to the Sunday Guardian that the division has an open complaint and enforcement matter about the development.
According to documents provided to the Sunday Guardian by a resident who obtained them through a Freedom of Information request (FOI) in August 2023, the building’s owners have been granted and denied permission to develop the property several times between 2019 and 2023.
However, the most recent notice, in March 2023, stated that the development could not be completed.
Timeline of building
* In June 2019, in a letter from Town and Country, the property owners were denied permission as the existing development did not conform to the site development standards.
* In October 2019, noting certain defects and omissions, Town and Country notified the property owners that their application could not be completed.
“1. Your site plans and floor plans are inaccurate. Your elevations submitted vary significantly from your floor plans.”
“2. Your floor plans and site plans are inconsistent with elevations submitted for your proposal.”
“Notes: 1) Maximum height of 8.5m at two storeys. 2) Windows shown on elevations are not shown on floor plans. 3) It has been observed that the proposed development shows rooms that have no windows. All proposed bedrooms must show at least one window for ventilation purposes,” it said.
But by January 2020, however, Town and Country granted permission to erect a guest house consisting of 11 bedrooms, in accordance with the plans submitted as part of their application.
The conditions required for approval were: that certain buildings were to be demolished upon completion, that aspects of the building meet the requirements of the Chief Fire Officer, and that the local authority’s consent be granted before the beginning of development.
But just one month later, in February 2020, Town and Country sent a notice to the property owners that it was carrying out an unauthorised building. The division said the site does not conform to the strict adherence to every arrangement and detail appearing in either of the approved plans.
They were advised that they were in breach of the provisions of Section 8(1) and were to immediately cease any further building operations on the subject site.
They were further advised that within 28 days of the receipt of the letter, they are required to submit an application for planning permission pursuant to Section 14(1) for the retention of the building or works described at 1 above.
The owners were refused permission to develop a guesthouse restaurant again in another letter dated December 1, 2020, from the Town and Country Planning Division.
According to the notice, under the Development Plan for T&T, the maximum permitted height of any proposed building should not exceed two storeys to a maximum of 8.5m from ground level to the apex of the roof.
The notice further stated that development works started on site without relevant proposals, the development exceeds the maximum density of bedrooms allocated for residential use and does not conform to car parking requirements.
In August 2021, conditional permission was, once again, granted by Town & Country to carry out development at 35 & 37 De Verteuil Street but with the following conditions:
• The applicant was required to obtain the relevant agency approvals from the Chief Fire Officer, WASA and the Port-of-Spain City Corporation.
• The developers were also required to ensure parking arrangements and access to the site met the requirements of the Traffic Management Division.
• As seen in a March 2023 letter, the property owners were notified that certain defects/omissions were identified in the documents submitted, so the application cannot be completed.
“Your application is therefore being returned undetermined, so that these defects/omissions can be rectified.
“Your application was queried on February 27, 2023, and you have not responded within the stipulated time,” the letter said.
When the Sunday Guardian visited the site on Wednesday, the external portion of the project looked close to completion. According to residents, construction began in 2020. The owner of the property is a Chinese national. Attempts to get into contact with the owner for comment were unsuccessful.
Pariag said the division was working with the involved parties for an amicable resolution. However, he indicated that he could not say anything further due to legal reasons.
Meanwhile, members of the Port-of-Spain City Corporation’s Engineering Department acknowledged receiving reports of the development, saying they were aware of the matter. Despite attempts, it proved impossible to get more information about the matter from the corporation.
As motorists and pedestrians passed the new development at 35-37 De Verteuil Street, they glanced up and down two or three times with their eyes wide open. The three-storey building, whose floors appear significantly taller than an average floor, towered over the rest of the houses on the street. To the front of the building, six mammoth white-panelled garage doors guarded the cream-coloured fortress, while four massive windows on each side of the building offered an unobstructed view of the district. The building, yet to be officially opened, is unlike any other seen in Woodbrook before, residents said.
“There is no other building this height in the entirety of Woodbrook. You can drive up and down every street and there’s nothing else as tall, as big as this. It’s our nightmare,” said one resident.
“I’m convinced that there’s no stopping it. It seems like people are just turning a blind eye,” said a De Verteuil Street resident.
“I’m more concerned about what it’s actually going to be used for because I don’t think any of us have gotten an answer yet. We are already affected in Woodbrook with traffic and parking. While they have a certain amount of parking underground, we don’t know what it is. We’ve heard it’s a nightclub, a restaurant. We’ve heard it’s a gambling club. We’ve heard it’s for residential property.
“They’ve brought up a lot of properties in the area. I don’t know what is planned for that side of the place,” another De Verteuil Street resident said.
With the explosion of social and leisurely activity on Ariapita Avenue and its environs, Woodbrook residents have been forced to adapt to a new life. Traffic and parking are a headache. At night, especially on weekends, loud limers seeking to forget the stress of the workweek roam the area after leaving a restaurant, bar, or casino. Old neighbours, many of whom become friends, say goodbye more frequently after being offered sums of money they often can’t refuse for their properties.
With each passing year, Woodbrook becomes increasingly commercial. But the community of Woodbrook homeowners are no pushovers.
According to many Woodbrook residents, if the 35-37 De Verteuil Street development is allowed to open as is, then a dangerous precedent would be set because they believe the development is unauthorised and contravenes long-standing development rules and regulations. They believe the building is too large and is not the mandated 15 feet away from the boundary. They also believe it is commercial, as opposed to residential, despite the owners applying for permission to develop it as a residential property.
Residents are concerned that if the building opens for business as a bar, restaurant, club or guest house, it will cause further parking and traffic issues in their area, and will also attract suspicious characters. They are also concerned it will open the floodgates for similar developments to take over what remains of their Woodbrook.
The Woodbrook Residents Committee agreed with the concerns expressed by residents.
Unrealistic regulations hamper development–Urban planner
Urban Planner Ryan Darmanie believes that unauthorised development in Port-of-Spain and environs is a long-standing issue and it is one he foresees worsening. While describing enforcement as weak, he believed that the State puts far too many resources into attempting to enforce regulations that are unrealistic given the needs of the population, and the environmental and economic consequences of inefficient use of land.
“We should be making it as easy and attractive as possible for people to build in existing urban areas like POS that already have convenient access to employment, services, utilities, and other amenities.
“Instead, our enforcement system can be hampered by matters like people building apartments in single-family-only neighbourhoods, in a country with a waiting list for public housing that exceeds 180,000, or someone constructing a four-storey building in a high-demand urban location with perfect access to services and amenities and extremely high land prices, but some technocrat arbitrarily decided no building should exceed two storeys; or someone building a corner store in a neighbourhood that has no grocery within reasonable walking distance of residents, because some technocrat decided that a corner store providing basic goods is somehow intrinsically incompatible with residential development,” he said.
Darmine placed unauthorised development into two categories: firstly, breaches of planning, environmental and other development regulations that are unreasonable and egregious. For example, building right at the edge of a watercourse, placing polluting and high nuisance land uses near to residences, or building over a neighbouring property boundary.
The second category of unauthorised development, he said, was more of a grey area.
“It is the unauthorised development that results from unrealistic regulations eg, in urban areas like Port-of-Spain, land is scarce, and expensive and lots are typically quite small.
Regulations that do not allow a typical lot of land to be utilised in an economically productive way or render development near impossible due to basic physical constraints of lot size and dimensions will inadvertently encourage people to flout the law or push development activity out of desirable urban areas and into suburban, rural and sensitive environments, where it is less desirable from a planning perspective,” Darmanie said.
The urban planner believed that the second category of unauthorised development–the grey area–will likely increase as land and construction prices increase, and as the demand for housing increases as well, while the planning system is still based on utopian ideals.
He said one of the biggest problems is that the development of our planning regulations is almost completely divorced from economic realities and the dynamics of a market-based economy.
“Whether we like it or not, the cost of land and social needs, and not some technocrat, ultimately largely determines the basics of where people live; what land is bought and sold; and how land is developed. Planners’ attempts to influence the use of land through regulations will ultimately fail if those two factors are not appreciated,” Darmanie said.
Resources should be used more prudently, focusing on the first category of unauthorised development, he suggested. For this to happen, he said, development regulations need to be updated and brought in line with today’s needs, so that enforcement capabilities aren’t overrun.
“We are driven by disciplinarian thinking in this country. We care not to question the underlying rationale behind our rules. Too many of us, professionals included, are incurious as to why people behave the way they do. We only see that people don’t do what we want and expect them to, and assume it’s due to a lack of intelligence or inherent inability to follow rules. We have to want to understand people’s motives for anything to change.
“There is a serious generational bias at play in a lot of enforcement issues. Existing homeowners who trend older, tend to look after their own interests, ie, property values. By keeping neighbourhoods frozen in time, they believe that their properties will be worth more due to high demand and low supply. For example, preventing new housing from being built harms those who would like to be homeowners and tend to be younger. All of these issues need to be considered in the discussion about enforcement. It’s not simply a black-and-white conversation about people not following rules,” Darmanie added.