Sept. 20, 2002 – Over loud protests from environmental activists, and against the recommendation of its staff, the St. Thomas Coastal Zone Management Committee approved a major permit Thursday night for the development of a resort and time-share complex at Botany Bay on the island's far western end.
The 4-0 vote came at the end of a two-hour meeting where the committee weighed three options presented by CZM staff. Objections erupted as the committee members — Winston Adams, Robert Mathes, Austin Monsanto and Peggy Simmonds — chose the option of approving the permit application on condition of the developers complying with 15 provisions spelled out by the staff.
The president of the Environmental Association of St. Thomas-St. John said on Friday that the group will probably appeal the decision. "We need official board approval before we take any action," Carla Joseph said, "but the sentiment is certainly there."
Monsanto, the CZM committee chair, admonished the crowd gathered in the Planning and Natural Resources Department conference room at Cyril E. King Airport on Thursday, stating that since the proceeding was a decision hearing, the public was invited to attend but not permitted to participate. He also pointed out that the Botany Bay area is private, not public, land.
"The property does not belong to the government. We cannot tell them no," Monsanto said. However, he said CZM did have oversight over aspects of the development and that in this regard, "We have responsibilities to see this is done properly."
A second option presented by CZM staff was for the committee to put off its final vote and spend more time reviewing the matter.
The third option was for the committee to ask Botany Bay Partners to withdraw its application on the basis of insufficient information, then later resubmit it after addressing deficiencies. This option, recommended by CZM staff, was addressed briefly by Adams.
Many of the questions put before the developers could be answered, Adams said, if the V.I. government had a comprehensive land and water use plan in effect. "It's the responsibility of the government to conduct planning instead of throwing it onto the developer," he said.
CZM staff recommended application withdrawal
In its final report submitted by Janis Hodge, CZM director, the staff recommended that Botany Bay Partners "withdraw its application; provide supplemental information to clearly address public access, marine resources in all three bays [and] impacts to the drainage ways; and consolidate [this data] with existing information to ensure consistency between the written submittals and the drawings." The report concluded, "Failure to implement this action would result in a project, which, at best, would be extremely difficult to monitor to ensure compliance with the CZM Act."
After the vote, Monsanto said that he was relieved that an arduous two-year application process for Botany Bay Partners was at an end. "We worked at it very diligently," he said. "We made several site visits, and we didn't want to go against the staff recommendations that might open the process to appeal."
The developers have said they want to build a five-star eco-tourism resort and time-share complex on some 68 acres they own along the beachfront of a pristine area that has had restricted public access for nearly 30 years.
The 15 provisions address concerns ranging from public access in and around the premises to use of a proposed helicopter pad. Each item was debated and in some cases modified as the committee weighed the options before an audience including the developers, members of the League of Women Voters and the St. Thomas-St. John Environmental Association, and the news media.
At one point, the frustration level among some members of the audience erupted into angry cries calling the commissioners "sellouts."
Community activist Caroline Browne shouted, "You sit here and give our Virgin Islands away to any and every developer!" Moments later, she and a couple of other individuals stormed out the room. They filed back, more subdued, moments later, having been met in the hall by Sen. Adelbert Bryan, who also came in and joined the meeting.
Bryan's attempt to question commissioners during a brief break in the proceedings was rebuffed by Monsanto. After the meeting, the senator said he wanted to ask how the CZM staff formulated its list of recommendations, and where in the board's rules of procedure it is dictated when the public is allowed to participate in hearings. "I was trying to find out if the decision-making meeting was being operated as an executive session," he said.
After the meeting, Joseph called the permit approval process "an exercise in futility." She said the decision was made without the public having full information on several aspects of the proposed development. In response to a CZM request for additional information, Botany Bay Partners submitted its answers days before the final hearing, denying the public an opportunity to review the responses, she said.
Staff found need for further review
According to the CZM staff report, the developers submitted a revised environmental assessment report on July 5 in response to "a list of deficiencies identified after reviewing the initial submission" and also submitted a "Response to CZM Concerns." Following a CZM public hearing on Aug. 20, they submitted a water quality monitoring plan and written responses to concerns raised by staff and the public. "These documents, however, raised additional questions, as they made reference to documents that were not submitted," the report said.
At a CZM public meeting on Sept. 9, the report continued, the developers provided additional information regarding stormwater management and discussed concerns raised earlier. On Sept. 11, they supplied Sandy Bay marine environment documents and additional information to clarify earlier documents. On Sept. 17, they submitted drawings of the proposed public access "but no narrative on how those areas are to be maintained, enhanced or accessed," the report stated.
"A plethora of information has been submitted requiring significant cross-referencing among reports, studies, old permits and other documents … to obtain an understanding of what the project entails and impacts associated with the development," the report said. "Additionally, "uncertainty of the relationship" between the Environmental Development Commission beneficiary and the applicant "raises additional concerns that are yet to be addressed."
Joseph said it would have been better for the committee to delay the final vote to spend more time reviewing the matter.
Also expressing disappointment was Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, who did not attend Thursday's meeting but sent his public affairs and policy aide, Nicole Bollentini, as his representative. Donastorg said afterward that he was disappointed but not surprised by the affirmative vote. He said the Botany Bay decision was "pushed through without proper controls from the very start."
Attorney George Dudley, representing the developers, said he was pleased with the vote to grant the CZM permit.
The Botany Bay Partners principals "are serious about this being an eco-tourism resort. We're looking forward to being put to the test," Dudley said. He also said he anticipates further opposition and the possibility that the permit approval may be appealed.
Concerned parties have 45 days to appeal the decision with the Board of Land Use Appeals. Once administrative remedies are exhausted, the matter could be taken to court.
Botany Bay is considered to have unique historic significance by scientists, historians and educators for its rich, diverse and almost undisturbed quality that has allowed several plant and wildlife communities to thrive
while the rest of St. Thomas has suffered the effects of development. Identified ecological and historic "treasures" include two colonial historic sites which are part of the National Historic Register, one of the last remaining watersheds, thriving coral reef communities, parakeets, deer, green monkeys, turtles and a pre-colonial Amerindian ballfield.
Joseph said on Friday that "the community is frustrated and outraged by CZM's decision." She called Thursday evening's meeting "a farce … little or no consideration was given to either public testimony or the professional recommendations of the CZM staff."
As examples of "major problems" with the permit, Joseph said, it was approved "without any plans for sewage treatment and without benefit of any marine surveys. These are not small matters. We are talking about the development of one of our most pristine and sensitive lands." She added that the CZM committee members "didn't seem to appreciate the scope or the extent of their authority under the CZM Act to limit the impact of developments on the environment."
Joseph was in agreement with one committee member, however. Echoing Adams, she said, "This is a classic example of what happens in the absence of land-use planning … With such a plan in place, we could avoid many of our development concerns."
She added that EAST will be asking candidates seeking public office in November to support the adoption of a comprehensive land and water use plan.
Provisions attached to permit
1. Public access will be recorded as being constructed along public easements to the property; any relocation of the public access area will require CZM permission.
2. The public will be allowed to use the resort's funicular system without charge during operating hours.
3. Community residents will be allowed to use the resort tennis courts without charge.
4. The permittee will provide an on-site area for public education about the natural resources of Botany Bay and nature trails open to the public.
5. The permittee will provide shuttle service for workers to and from the development site.
6. The permittee will provide special lighting compatible with turtle nesting and take steps to protect the nesting habitat.
7. The permittee will comply with Historic Preservation Commission requirements to minimize the loss of archeological resources on site.
8. Any use of the helicopter pad will be in compliance with rules and regulations.
9. The permittee will hire an endangered species biologist to document land-clearing methods and make sure that steps are taken to protect or relocate rare and endangered species.
10. Land clearing will take place in three specified phases, subject to CZM approval of work done in each phase before work commences on the next.
11. No sediment-laden runoff will be allowed to enter in the coastal waters surrounding the project site.
12. The permittee will provide funds to DPNR to hire an independent expert to conduct water and marine resource monitoring.
13. Agreements, permits and upgrades for use of the Bordeaux wastewater treatment plant will be in place before any request to DPNR for a certificate of occupancy. The permittee will pay for any necessary upgrades.
14. The permittee will post a $10 million surety bond to ensure that erosion and sedimentation controls are implemented and maintained to minimize adverse environmental impact to the site's land, sea and archeological resources.
15. All other necessary federal and territorial permits must be obtained prior to the start of work.
Jean Etsinger contributed to this report.
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