Aug. 28, 2003 – Wednesday night's Committee of the Whole hearing on a request to rezone four parcels of Estate Hartmanns fronting Great Pond Bay on the eastern end of St. Croix's South Shore found witnesses at odds over preservation of a delicate ecosystem versus the anticipated economic benefits of a new resort and casino.
About 75 people filled the Legislative Conference Room in Frederiksted for the hearing on the rezoning request from the developer of the planned Golden Gaming Resort. The session represented the only opportunity for proponents and opponents of the project to testify before the rezoning goes to a vote before the full Senate at a session scheduled for next week.
Paul Golden, chief executive officer of Golden Resorts, told the senators that the construction phase will employ 800 workers and require approximately 160,000 man-hours of labor with an estimated payroll of $30 million. He said he would like to break ground next March and open the resort in November 2005.
The resort will create 1,200 permanent jobs and will cost upwards of $150 million, Golden told the committee. He said he has secured primary and secondary funding for the project. (The Public Finance Authority has delayed a decision since April on whether to commit $32.5 million to the project. See "Rezoning for Golden Resort on Senate agenda".)
Golden urged the Senate to approve the zoning changes so he can proceed with the next phase of the project, application for a Coastal Zone Management permit.
Attorneys Kevin Rames and Treston Moore, both representing Golden Gaming, touted a renaissance of economic wealth for St. Croix with the construction of the resort.
Rames said he has been involved in numerous St. Croix development projects over the last 15 years, and "ultimately, many of those projects died because of serious opposition from environmentalists — and sometime lack of adequate funding."
Moore said the zoning changes are necessary for the project to go forward. He asked that the four plots, now zoned for agricultural and residential use, be rezoned to R-3, which is for residential/commercial use.
Covenants and restrictions
Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dean Plaskett described covenants and restrictions on the property, including a preservation zone of about 49 acres along the Great Pond shoreline. The developers are limited to construction of a 350-room hotel, a 600-unit condominium complex and an 18-hole golf course, he said, and none of the buildings can be more than four stories high.
Golden in his testimony described the planned resort as encompassing a 400-room hotel, an 18-hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, and a casino of 26,000 square feet.
Plaskett, who is a lawyer, said he had received a letter from Moore asking that DPNR disregard the Declaration of Covenants and Restrictions conveyed to Golden Gaming and that he had in turn written to Attorney General Iver Stridiron for guidance. He said Stridiron replied that the issue was a private matter to be resolved by the parties, in court if need be.
Plaskett said rezoning of the property will not affect the covenants and restrictions and that his department does not have any objections to the rezoning. "We are concerned with the delicate nature of the area, but that will be addressed at the CZM hearing," he said.
The CZM permit application process requires the developer to submit an environmental impact assessment for the area.
Among others testifying, Robert McAuliffe, president of Fishermen's United Cooperative of St. Croix, said he does not oppose development in the Great Pond area. "We need to develop and grow the economy of St. Croix," he said, adding that at the moment people "don't even have enough money to buy fish."
Kendall Petersen, vice president of Farmers in Action, and Olassee Davis, ecologist, spoke against the rezoning.
Petersen said it is his belief that no land now zoned for agriculture should be rezoned. Rames had said earlier that the farmland in question is used for ranching, not for growing crops.
The Great Pond area used to be St. Croix's second-largest lagoon, Davis said, but with the impact on Krauss Lagoon of Hess Oil development, Great Pond is now the largest ecosystem of its kind on the island. He stressed the ecological importance of the body of water, calling it a "major player in the sustainability of the fishing industry."
St. Croix taxi driver Derrick Deport spoke in favor of the rezoning, saying that in his work he experiences the island's economic hardship first hand. "Things are hard," he said, "and we the people in St. Croix need to stop saying 'no.'"
Virdin C. Brown, former assistant commissioner of DPNR and former senator, also strongly opposed the resort project. But he said that if the Senate is inclined to let the development go forward, is should approve a zoning variance rather than rezone the properties. Once land is rezoned, it may be put to any use allowable under the new rezoning. Where a variance is granted, the property may be used only for the purpose specified in the variance.
Opposing spot zoning, not development
The St. Croix Environmental Association did not send a representative to testify but prepared a statement opposing the rezoning. SEA believes that "it is important to separate the Golden Gaming development from the issue of spot zoning," Bill Turner, executive director, said. "Too frequently the argument is forwarded that spot zoning must occur in order to spur economic development. To the contrary, spot zoning is a symptom of failed planning that is endemic to St. Croix. It is foolish to assert that opposition to spot zoning is opposition to development."
A comprehensive land and water use plan would provide specific parameters for controlled growth, thereby serving St. Croix economic, social and environment needs, he said. "The Senate follows the letter of the zoning law," he said "while ignoring the spirit of that very law that has as defining principles the goal of protecting the value inherent in property ownership and promoting the economic, social and environmental health and well being of the entire community."
According to Turner, SEA also objects to "the all-or-nothing nature of the request. We are aware that a variance will not allow a developer to build a casino, according to the laws passed by this body. We assert that this body should change those laws so that a variance would be sufficient for the construction of a casino."
The hearing, which began at 6 p.m., concluded around 10:30. Six of the 15 senators were present: Sens. Lorraine Berry, Louis Hill, David Jones, Luther Renee, Usie Richards and Ronald Russell.
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