July 1, 2003 — The Save Long Bay Coalition has a problem. Like everyone on St. Thomas, the coalition wants to see the derelict Yacht Haven Hotel torn down and the proposed new hotel and marina built as quickly as possible, according to a release from Judith Bourne.
But coalition members also see the "rest of the development plan" — the part that Insignia Nautica doesn't talk much about — as a time bomb that is both unlawful and economically and environmentally bad for the community.
"The hotel is to be built on land owned by Insignia Nautica-USVI, and the marina is on submerged land owned by the government," Lucien Moolenaar, a coalition member, said in the release. "We believe that there are some legal problems with the permit and lease, and that the six-story height of some of the buildings should not have been permitted, but now that it has been approved, we recognize that we must accept them."
The commercial development on the filled land, however, is another matter. Bourne, a lawyer, was one of the attorneys on the lawsuit brought by the Coalition to stop the dredging and filling of the harbor by the Danish-owned West Indian Co. Ltd. (WICO) in 1987.
"We fought for this land for many years," she said. "The Danish former owners acknowledged that it was the campaign of the Save Long Bay Coalition that convinced them to sell the company to the Virgin Islands government and not try to get a top-dollar price. We fought because we believed that this land, 'held in trust for the people of the Virgin Islands,' is more than just words, that it has real meaning. And that meaning is trashed by leasing it to a commercial company to build stores and offices along our harbor."
For years the coalition has proposed a waterfront park appropriate for both tourists and locals on the landfill along the bayside. Ironically, coastal cities in the United States are tearing down buildings and highways along their waterfronts to revitalize the areas by creating parks.
According to Helen Gjessing, the coalition's president, the permit submitted by IN-USVI is improper because it includes both the privately owned, solid land-based development and the publicly owned, filled land which is trust land. She believes that the legal requirements for the two are different and that IN-USVI is deliberately trying to hide that by publicizing the hotel and marina without saying much about the stores and offices.
"Have you seen the amount of commercial space they plan to build?" Gjessing asked, again in the release. "That kind of shopping and office development there could kill downtown and seriously hurt the taxi industry."
"We know that IN-USVI will slam us if we appeal their permit – the one that they have not sent to the Legislature and that hardly anyone knows about," Bourne said. "The company says that the only approval that they need is from the Coastal Zone Management Commission. We believe they are wrong. We know they will say that a challenge to any part of their project must stop the whole thing. We don't believe that either. We have to look at the long-range effects, not just a quick fix for our immediate problem.
"As the late Gov. Alexander Farrelly used to say: 'Hungry dog eat raw meat.' And he was one of our members before he became governor," Bourne pointed out.
Harbor's history is a changing landscape
Seafaring Indians settled around the harbor, long before Europeans came across the sea with settlement in mind. Denmark established a permanent colony at St. Thomas in 1672, and Charlotte Amalie was officially established in 1691 and declared a free port in 1764.
Substantial change to the harbor landscape came in 1781 and 1782 when the lagoon east of Fort Christian was drained and filled to accommodate residential and commercial growth.
Some 80 years later, in 1861, the narrow channel between Hassel Island and the mainland was cut, and in 1864 and 1865, Haulover Channel was widened and the inner harbor was dredged to remove reefs and shoals.
Only 50 years passed before the next dredging of the inner harbor, as the Danish West Indian Co. between 1910 and 1914 constructed a major marine facility at Havensight, using dredged material to create 50 acres of waterfront land.
Under the Americans, a navigational channel was dredged in the inner harbor in 1935, and spoil was used to fill in the Long Bay/Sugar Estate swamp; Haulover Cut was widened and deepened, and spoil was used to fill in the Frenchtown "ballpart" area and the shoreline around Villa Olga.
From 1940 to 1943, Crown Bay was filled with material dredged from Gregerie Channel to construct a submarine base.
From 1950 to 1953, a harbor highway was constructed along the old waterfront, using dredge spoil from the inner harbor.
In 1962-63, large areas of the inner harbor were dredged and the spoil used to reclaim land at Crown Bay and Long Bay.
The harbor so centrist to St. Thomas' long history has shifted over the centuries as if on a bed of sand. And dredging and changes were obviously made to accommodate the needs of the moment.
In 1984 and 1985, the current and proposed harbor development projects included:
— Port Authority dredging West Gregerie Channel in order to provide 22 fill acres for a port facility at Crown Bay.
— West Indian Co. proposal to dredge inner harbor to fill in Long Bay for marine and commercial use.
— A proposal to construct a marina at Villa Olga.
— A proposal to build condominiums at Estate Bellevue.
— A proposal to fill in the shoreline between Guttets Gade and Long Bay to create a new waterfront highway.
— A proposal for a new hotel, condominium and marina development at Water Island.
Efforts to prevent or control harbor changes
Into this beleaguered harbor setting of the 1980s came members of the St. Thomas Historical Trust and the V.I. Conservation Society, believing that "the time has come to limit and tightly control future harbor development through a long-term management plan."
A fact sheet produced by the coalition group said, "Our magnificent harbor is St. Thomas' foremost asset. For 3,500 years it has sustained the economic, social and cultural life of our community." The above chronology was taken from that fact sheet.
The Save Long Bay Coalition swung into action as the West Indian Co. sought to renew its claim to fill 42 acres in the harbor instead of the 7.5 acres permitted at the time of the Legislature's July 1986 repeal of the dredge-and-fill permits.
A paper by Dennis Nixon, published in 1990, recounts the legal and political history of "The filling of Long Bay: The Legacy of a Colonial Past."
During the decade when the government gave attention to the idea of "Areas of Particular Concern," the No. 1 St. Thomas APC was the "Charlotte Amalie Harbor and Waterfront," encompassing eight sub-areas, from "West Indian Co. and Vicinity" to "Krum Bay," and including "Hassel Island" and "Water Island." It seemed no stone would be unturned to preserve the historic harbor.
The Save Long Bay Coalition was born to face a problem, and it has surfaced at times when new threats arise. Now it says the landscape is threatened and its members will protest what they see as desecration of the land "held in trust for the people of the Virgin Islands."
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