July 25, 2002 – Controversy mounted and accusations flew Monday at the Mahogany Run Club House in one of the latest episodes of the ongoing saga of the Lovenlund Apartments development.
The project has raised concerns in both environmental and neighborhood circles as different interests collide on the former pasture land adjacent to St. Thomas Dairies overlooking Magens and Lovenlund Bays: Property values and non-point source pollution concerns are rubbing shoulders with bureaucratic inefficiency and election-year politicking.
The rental homes project was approved by the Legislature early this year as part of a package encompassing 700 units of low-income housing throughout the territory. "No one would have voted against low-income housing," Sen. Lorraine Berry said at the Mahogany Run meeting Monday night.
Permits were issued in February to Reliance Housing Foundation Inc., according to statements made at the club house meeting. The site rests in Coastal Zone Management's Tier 2 — that is, not along the coast — and has been zoned R-3 since 1972, when the territory's first zoning laws were passed, so no public hearings were necessary. Meetings were held with residents of the nearby communities of Peterborg and Mahogany Run, but no open public forum took place and no major public announcement was made. Ground was broken on June 17.
Reliance Housing Foundation is a not-for-profit organization based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Since 2000, Reliance has engaged in six construction and revitalization projects on the mainland, five in Florida and one in Memphis, Tennessee, utilizing Federal Low Income Tax Credits issued to it by the U.S. government, which it then sells to corporations. These funds are used to purchase, build, upgrade, and maintain properties which are rented below market value to low-income workers.
Rents are determined according to Area Median Income, with varying proportions of the communities parceled out to individuals who earn less than 60 percent of AMI. In the Virgin Islands, this demographic includes entry-level teachers and government employees as well as many retail clerks. These developments are not public housing; every tenant pays rent and is subject to rules comparable to those of a condominium association. Prospective tenants are screened for criminal records.
Lovenlund Apartments, currently in the first phases of construction, is to be Reliance's seventh property. Initially conceived as a 12-building development with a community center, sewage treatment and reverse osmosis facilities, it was scaled back to 10 buildings with a total of 99 units ranging from one to four bedrooms. As planned, all buildings but the one-story community center rest on the opposite slope from Magens Bay Road, facing Mahogany Run.
From the Magens Bay road, only the community center and the roofs of three of the buildings will be visible. According to sources familiar with the designs, St. Croix architect Steven Hutchins' plans are well laid out, following the contours of the land and providing a good deal of space between buildings which are comparatively small, in stark contrast to, say, Paul M. Pearson Gardens with its tightly packed monolithic structures.
The Lovenlund site offered major advantages over other possible locations: It was available for purchase, and its gently rolling terrain presents fewer construction challenges than other areas of St. Thomas.
Ground breaking gives rise to concerns
Following the June 17 ground breaking, however, concerns began to mount. Silt fencing and protective berms were not in evidence on the day of the lightly publicized ceremony. Nor were they in the days that followed, as noted by Jason Budsan at the Northside Civic Organization meeting on June 30.
Subsequent site visits by Source staff as well as Helen Gjessing, who chairs the League of Women Voters' Committee on Planning and Environmental Quality and follow-up visits by Budsan also turned up at best minimal and sometimes nonexistent silt fencing in the area surrounding the initial cut, which is to form the community's access road.
GEC of St. Croix, general contractor for the project, disputed this at Monday night's meeting, saying that silt fencing had to be removed to make space for the governor and his entourage on the day of the ground breaking, and that erosion controls have been erected, fallen down, and been replaced several times since then.
Budsan and Gjessing tried without success to learn from the Planning and Natural Resources Department what types of permits were issued and whether the site had been inspected. Gjessing paid several visits to the department offices in search of plans and permitting information before being allowed to see portions of the Lovenlund file this week. Repeated requests for information by Source staff went unanswered as recently as Wednesday.
"There are a lot of questions which we aren't getting answers to," Budsan said. Both he and Gjessing stressed the flaws inherent in CZM's two-tier permitting system, which sets less-stringent requirements for building in Tier 2, despite the fact that any erosion from the hillsides above still enters the coastal zone and ends up in the sea, where it contributes to the destruction of coral reefs.
Gjessing had some answers on Wednesday. "I have no idea whether I saw the whole file or not," she said, adding that DPNR officials had been reluctant and secretive about providing information is a matter of public record. She took up the matter of erosion control with those she met with, including Douglas Hodge, unit director of DPNR's Permits Review and Inspection Office.
"That is something I did challenge the permitting people about. Silt fencing is something you're supposed to have up before you start clearing," Gjessing said. "They're not doing their job and it's very upsetting," she concluded.
Objections other than environmental
In addition to local environmentalists concerned about possible erosion control violations at the construction site, a separate group of people comprising area homeowners and other residents are voicing concerns over other aspects of the project, circulating a petition for a halt to work on site. This group, forming an ad hoc committee led by Keith and Jason Husbands, is fielding a laundry list of concerns that range from noise pollution caused by morning bulldozing to hurricane exposure and potential sewage runoff dangers.
On July 17, Jason Husbands said he was concerned that so few people seemed aware of the Lovenlund Apartments project. "I'd say 80 percent or the people I've spoken to don't know about it," he said.
Jason Husbands holds a master's degree in civil engineering; he specialized in construction engineering and project management and subsequently worked for the Haliburton engineering firm. "Magens Bay is synonymous with St. Thomas," he said, voicing concerns that placing a development the size of Lovenlund so near the beach might send tourists packing.
But as undesirable as he feels the location to be, he stressed that he felt it was "an even worse idea for the people who have to live there." He said residents' transportation needs would place an additional strain on the area's infrastructure and nonexistent public transportation. He also emphasized the property's northern exposure to hurricane winds, as well as potential damage to the marketability of the Mahogany Run Golf Course. "I know that we have the resources to come up with a better solution," he said.
On July 18, a considerable number of area residents turned out for a Magens Bay Authority meeting which included Lovenlund on the agenda. One authority member later described the crowd as "very worked up."
Gjessing spoke concerning her findings at Planning and Natural Resources and the difficulty of obtaining any meaningful information on the project from the local government. Because
of the lack of information, the Magens Bay Authority decided not to take a position on the issue.
Matters came to a head Monday night when between 150 and 200 area residents and other concerned persons gathered at the Mahogany Run Club House. The meeting had been called by attorney Tom Bolt, representing Reliance, who said its purpose was to provide a forum for concerned individuals to voice their views and to open up dialogue between Reliance and the community.
The dominant mood among those gathered appeared to be outrage. As Bolt sought to work through the meeting agenda, many in the crowd scoffed and laughed at such phrases as "not public housing" and "working people." More than once, chants of "lies" broke out in the room and whispers of "crime center" were heard..
Hardly any questions were addressed to the assembled panel of public officials and project personnel including GEC's John Wessel; Clifford Graham of the V.I. Housing Authority; DPNR's Hodge; and Steve Parris, DPNR plans reviewer and inspector. Keith Husbands, the ad hoc committee's chair, was also included at the head table.
Salient questions by Bill Newbold, David Bornn and other attendees as to process and actual construction were drowned out by repeated queries about hanging laundry, grounds maintenance and other management issues. Few, if any, attendees had previously seen a plan for the project, and few were willing to believe that the site does not drain directly into Magens Bay.
The longstanding R-3 zoning also carried little weight with the crowd. And there was confusion over federal versus local funding, one woman suggesting that the funds could be better spent on getting the local high schools reaccredited. Gjessing spoke briefly on the legal process, stating that a public hearing had not been required and that the permitting seemed to be in order. "I don't think anyone ought to be surprised. I think you should accept it," she said.
Budsan reemphasized the deficiencies of the current two-tier system and urged that soil erosion worries be addressed on site and that inspections take place. He, Gjessing and the rest of the small environmentalist contingent left shortly after that. As the night wore on, there was mention of reimbursement for loss of land value and rumblings of "class action lawsuit."
Ad hoc committee chair suggests alternatives
When Keith Husbands finally spoke, the room quieted somewhat. Unlike many others in his camp, Husbands was concise, articulate and on point. He brought up the history of low-cost housing in the territory, cited the state of the old Yacht Haven property in its proximity to Paul M. Pearson Gardens, and brought up the ghosts of Fountain Valley. He, too, voiced frustration at the lack of enforcement being carried out by DPNR and mentioned major permitting concerns.
"Magens Bay is a jewel, and we need to protect it," he said. On rumors that the election-year atmosphere had helped to ram the project through, he was explicit. "We need to ask our elected officials," he said. "This is an election year, and all we have to fight with is our vote."
Husbands suggested dispersing the same number of rental-housing units throughout the larger St. Thomas community, in proximity to a number of other residential areas and within closer range of commercial areas.
Following Husbands' speech, the crowd pressured Edmund Penn, Magens Bay Authority president, for a statement from the authority. He said only that the body "has not yet taken a position." He later added, "We have concerns, but not major concerns," and said the approval of the authority is not needed for the development.
Toward the end of the meeting, Berry spoke. "Today has shown to me the need for more transparency in government," she said. "I was concerned that so many people didn't know about the process." She stressed, "None of these people have violated any law."
Reflecting on BA lack of information and the difficulty in obtaining it, she added, "I think we need to have another hearing … Now that we are hearing concerns, we must address them." Nonetheless, as the meeting broke up, there were mutterings about intentional misrepresentation on the part of those involved.
Source efforts to obtain information from three of the Florida towns which are home to Reliance developments concerning Reliance's track record were unsuccessful. Repeated telephone calls to the office of DPNR's Hodge were referred by Hodge to other offices, where they were in turn referred to Hodge, who then absented himself. Parris was unavailable for comment, as was Robert Jackson, president of Reliance Housing Foundation Inc.
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