Sept. 4, 2003 – Economy won out over ecology Wednesday night as the Senate voted to rezone 120 acres of environmentally sensitive land at Great Pond on St. Croix for what was described as a $120 million resort and conference center.
This moves New Jersey casino developer Paul Golden's Golden Resort one step closer to reality, but funding issues loom, along with the challenge of securing a Coastal Zone Management permit. The CZM permitting process can be process and could delay Golden's projected late 2005 opening of the complex.
Although senators were sympathetic to environmental concerns, many said they couldn't ignore the dismal state of St. Croix's economy. Most said they could not say no to a project projected to offer 800 jobs in its construction phase and 1,200 permanent ones after that.
Some lawmakers said they would have preferred a zoning variance restricting the property to a specified use. Once property is rezoned, it may be used for any purpose which falls within that category of rezoning. Opponents of the rezoning note that should the property be sold, the new zoning remains in effect. With a variance, property upon reselling reverts to its original zoning restrictions.
Sen. Usie Richards, the only St. Croix senator to vote against the project, said: "A lot of the facts have been lost. Of all the rezoning considered by this body, this is the only one that does not bear a report from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources with a favorable or unfavorable recommendation."
At an Aug. 27 Senate meeting on St. Croix, DPNR Commissioner Dean Plaskett said rezoning of the property would not affect the covenants and restrictions attached thereto, and that his department did 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 then. The CZM permit application process requires the developer to submit an environmental impact assessment for the area.
Richards also told his colleagues on Wednesday: "Don't be misled by statements that if you don't pass the rezoning, you are stopping Golden Gaming; that is an outright lie. They have sufficient acreage."
He cited Act No. 5462, passed in 1989, which he said "clearly states 49 acres of Great Pond shall be preserved and maintained in perpetuity." Richards said the Senate shouldn't act to simply help Golden move his resort "a few feet closer to the beach." (See "Economy, ecology are resort rezoning issues".)
Richards said the rezoning may wind up putting the V.I. government in court at a future date to see "if we accurately responded to the act."
He asked about a variance which had been mentioned earlier in the session. "What about those advocating the variance? Where is the amendment? When did it circulate?"
Sen. Ronald Russell said shortly before the vote that he had submitted a variance. "As we proceed in the process, I would like to offer a variance," he said.
Shortly before the Senate vote, after hearing an opinion from Senate legal counsel Yvonne Tharpes terming the issue "complex as to … the covenant's validity," Richards asked Senate. President David Jones if the rezoning would have an effect on the covenant.
Jones told Richards, "Your point is well taken, but we are going forward with the roll call."
As for funding for the development, that remains in question. Government backing for Golden Resort LLLP has been on hold for months. The Public Finance Authority was to vote last Thursday on whether to commit $32.5 million as the developers worked on putting the rest of their financial package together. But the PFA board instead decided to delay its decision on financial support for the project.
Kenneth Mapp, PFA director of finance and administration, said on Thursday that the authority took that stand because of conflicting reports on the financial worth of Paul Golden's enterprise. That decision was a repeat of the PFA's action in April, when the authority similarly voted to delay a decision on putting up the $32.5 million in order to give the matter further scrutiny.
The PFA resolution calls on Golden to obtain irrevocable financing commitments for $95 million by the end of September.
Jones, an avid promoter of St. Croix economic development projects over his five Senate terms, has been the driving force behind the Golden Gaming proposal.
Just before the vote, Jones waxed dramatic: "It's grow or die," he said. "Now that we have an opportunity to experience success, we still have individuals injecting fear in some of our leaders. It's a conspiracy to keep St. Croix in the 18th century."
He continued: "When Columbus returns, he will be able to look around and say 'Yes, I remember that tree I sat under chilling out.' The Committee for the Second Coming of Columbus holds St. Croix hostage, creating a terrible situation on that island. There are many of us who do understand the potential of St. Croix; that is my passion."
Jones lamented that St. Croix gets left holding the bag in big projects — for instance, the Beal Aerospace proposal that fizzled three years ago — while St. Thomas moves right ahead. He said he was pleased about the Yacht Haven redevelopment project on St. Thomas, but he noted that it was approved by the Senate and signed into law all in one day in March — what he termed a new speed, "Yacht Haven Time."
"How many of you are willing to take a chance on St. Croix right now?" he asked his colleagues. "For the first time we have an opportunity for a 600-room hotel, a 18-hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, a 36,000-square-foot convention center and a world-class spa, the Golden Doors. A world-class resort destination. It doesn't make sense not to.
"We have a 10,000-foot runway, and the planes ain't coming; we have a pier, and the cruise ships ain't coming; we have lots of things, but ain't nobody coming. We have to try something. Don't be afraid to embrace success."
The majority of senators did not shrink from that challenge. St. Croix Sen. Emmett Hansen II said that "it's a disgrace how capital projects move on St. Croix." He took the opportunity to chide the governor for "regurgitating" the same tax measures in his just-released Fiscal Year 2004 budget proposal that the Senate rejected earlier, with "$110 million on the street in delinquent property tax — priceless money." He added: "Bonds, loans carry a price tag."
Hansen moved on to his pet project, infrastructure improvement for St. Croix. "There's a plant ready to move here, but they will need potable water lines," he said. Funding for these lines is included in his Infrastructure Act, which the governor vetoed for the second time, but for which he once again hopes to get a Senate override.
Sen. Louis Hill, chair of the Planning and Environmental Protection Committee, rejected the idea that "today's vote is a vote not to protect the environment," terming it "a vote to bring jobs to St. Croix." But while Hill said he wanted to be part of a decision to help St. Croix get out of its economic situation, he abstained from voting, saying he favored a variance. "At the appropriate time, CZM will look at the project," he said.
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg questioned whether the Legislature has authority the right to rezone property with rights in perpetuity. "We could wind up in court, and the governor would lose the case," he said. "I cannot in my right mind vote for this. My conscience won't allow me to support the rezoning at this time. Things come back to haunt us."
Voting for the measure were Sens. Lorraine Berry, Douglas Canton, Rooseve
lt David, Carlton Dowe, Hansen, Jones, Norman Jn Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone, Luther Renee and Russell. Voting in opposition were Sens. Donastorg, Richards and Celestino A. White Sr. Sen. Hill abstained, and Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd was absent.
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