Aug. 31, 2002 – The latest chapter in the continuing saga of the Crown Bay dock and retail complex development was a pre-hearing conference before the Board of Land Use Appeals on Friday as the League of Women Voters appealed the approval of a Coastal Zone Management permit for the retail part of the development.
Crown Bay expansion and development, on the boards for almost two decades, has dominated St. Thomas marine news in the last two years and has been an issue for the local business community, politicians and civic groups over the last year.
Last August, the Port Authority entered into an agreement with two major cruise lines to develop Crown Bay, a deal that was met with loud opposition by downtown and Havensight business interests and the West Indian Co. Critics said it would in effect give control of the St. Thomas harbor to the cruise lines and take shoppers away from downtown Charlotte Amalie and the Havensight Mall by the WICO cruise ship dock.
In March, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull nixed the deal, instructing VIPA to cancel its letter of intent with the cruise lines. Turnbull said at the time, "I believe it is important that the V.I. maintain full control of its harbor and harbor development."
After Turnbull's edict, VIPA decided to develop the project on its own, rather than partner with WICO, as Turnbull had wanted. VIPA received Senate approval of a major Coastal Zone Management permit in July for expansion of the Crown Bay dock.
Meantime, the League of Women Voters appealed to the Board of Land Use Appeals a 1983 CZM approval for a retail development in Crown Bay adjacent to the dock.
Erva Denham, LWV president, and Gwendolyn Wilds, the organization's attorney, said at Friday's pre-hearing on the appeal that VIPA's Coastal Zone Management permit is not valid. "Because of a 1989 Memorandum of Understanding between CZM and VIPA, the Port Authority was not required to submit a major permit application for the commercial development at Crown Bay," she said. "Since the MOU contravenes the CZM act, the CZM approval is invalid."
This is the league's major complaint. Denham explained that the league's position is that the MOU is simply a means to skip the CZM permitting process.
Not so, said Henry Carr, VIPA senior staff attorney. "This appeal should have taken place years ago," he said of the LWV action. "It is not timely, which is why I filed this motion for a pre-hearing." He said, "Approval was granted in 1983, and never appealed."
Wilds said a "Master Plan" of 1984 reflects and contemplates development on a much smaller scale than that depicted in the site plan contained in what the league has described as a fatally flawed 2002 Environmental Assessment Report for the VIPA commercial project. For that reason, Wilds said, the recommendations contained in the plan are specific that additional studies should be commissioned.
At a July Senate hearing on the CZM permit for the proposed dock expansion, Denham had been openly critical of the Environmental Assessment Report prepared by engineer Alton Adams Jr. She said the league found several problems with the permit, chiefly the effect the expansion would have on the community without proper infrastructure in place.
She said the report failed to answer questions the league had submitted to the CZM about the pier expansion's impact on public services and utilities, the handling of cruise ship waste and the impact of potentially 15,000 to 18,000 people arriving on the island in a day assuming three ships at the WICO dock and two at Crown Bay. She said it is more important to concentrate on the quality of experience visitors have than on increasing the number of visitors.
In her presentation before the Board of Land Use Appeals on Friday, Wilds said the Planning and Natural Resources Department had called the EAR report "woefully inadequate in that it fails to show the lot layout, position of structures, sewage collection, storm water drainage facilities, erosion and sediment control with specific details."
Darlan Brin, VIPA chief planner, defended the Port Authority's position. "We subjected ourselves to a public hearing, which we aren't required to do," he said. "The MOU doesn't matter; we have complied with the CZM requirements." He said the permit has allowed VIPA to build on the property over a period of years. "We've constructed several buildings — for instance, the Little Switzerland building," he said.
The St. Thomas CZM Committee has attached several conditions to its approval of the project: The shopping center architecture must be consistent with styles in Charlotte Amalie; the staging area for taxis serving the dock would be on the back road between the airport and Sub Base, so as to relieve traffic congestion; the dock, promenade and shopping areas would be open to the public; and the Port Authority would reserve space for an educational center with information about the history and culture of the Virgin Islands. The committee also imposed several conditions to reduce the environmental impact of the expansion.
Brin, after giving a thumbnail history of the Crown Bay project, stressed, "We've got to get moving on this project. We want to start the dock early next year, and the retail project after that."
The league in its formal appeal document asks that the board "remand the approval of the Crown Bay Development to CZM with the requirement that a major permit application be submitted for the project."
Board members, who huddled with their attorney, Michael Law, throughout the hearing, questioned VIPA's authority when Julita de Leon, CZM attorney, told them that the board doesn't have the jurisdictional authority to do what the LVW asks. She said the board cannot declare something unconstitutional.
Board member John P. Woods, then told de Leon that she had "exceeded her powers." "How do you have the power to decide that?" he asked. De Leon maintained she did have that authority.
Finally, the acting board chair, Elton Chongasing, asked both parties if it was possible they could resolve their conflicts outside of board jurisdiction. This suggestion was met with moderate enthusiasm by both sides. A hearing date will be set in October, unless Chongasing's suggestion proves fruitful.
Denham said, "It is the league's position to follow the law and the permitting process. Its position is, and always has been, to monitor developer's compliance with the CZM Act and the zoning laws of the territory." She added, "Although the CZM process is not perfect, it is the best one we have."
Wilds said, "In a nutshell, we don't want to stop development; we just want to see it done right."
Also attending the hearing were Janice Hodge, CZM director; and Board of Land Use Appeals members Jose Penn and Darien Wheatley.
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