April 17,2004 – Numbers and words Friday night indicated strong support for the William and Punch resort development slated for the northern end of St. Croix. The crowded senate chamber contained witnesses waiting to voice support as developers proposed zoning changes for the site.
Environmentalists, business owners, educators and adjacent property owners packed the benches to learn more about the details of the project, and to show their support of the project and the possible economic rebirth of the community. Some reservations were expressed about how the project would affect the environment of the area and a recommendation was made that the rezoning changes be contingent on the project's success. St. Croix, in recent years, has seen several resort development proposals fall through. The developers are asking that land presently designated for agriculture use be designated to low-density residential. They also ask that a section on the water be changed from agriculture to Waterfront Pleasure, so a marina could be built.
About 15 testifiers agreed that the economic life of St. Croix, most specifically the town of Frederiksted, needed a project such as this one proposed for the 588 acres of a once prime agricultural and livestock estate.
William and Punch partners plans are for a 4-star, destination resort with a 400-room hotel, marina, casino, 160 residential lots, condominiums, 2 golf courses, retail shops, convention center, botanical gardens and 300 acres of green space.
The $120 million project proposes to create 2,500 jobs.
Located between Rainbow Beach and Sprat Hall to the west and Creque Dam to the east, the estates of William and Punch were a part of the Estate La Grange Plantation purchased by George B. Fleming after the sugar factory went bankrupt in 1947.
Today the land is part of the Flemings Trust. The estates of William and Punch are listed on the National Register of Historic Sites.
At a public hearing held in March at St. Geralds Hall by the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, more than 100 residents were in attendance, 21 voiced concerns. Those concerns and concerns voiced before the Senate will be taken into consideration as the plan is modified.
The Senate will take no formal action until the modified plans are presented.
"I have roots that go back into that for 70 years," said Frederiksted businessman Robert Merwin. Fleming was his grandfather. "It's been lying idle and overgrown by bush. If we can make it productive without further delay lets make it happen. Having land idle like that is like waiting around for a job. Its no good."
Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd told the attendees that it was a record that so many agreed on a project of this magnitude on St. Croix. "This is the first time in a long time. We have turned the page. First time unanimous support."
In a telephone interview while on business in Seattle, Washington, Tony Ayers, principal of Century 21 whose family has resided on the north side for three generations, said he was concerned about the fresh water underground rivers that run throughout the north side properties. A DPNR representative testified that the William and Punch properties have over 90 documented wells.
Ayers said he has expressed to the developers his opposition to cutting through the shore road for a marina. "We are very excited about William and Punch. Its the first positive news for the west end of the island in a longtime. Its a very positive note for Frederiksted."
Alphonso Franklin, president of Our Town Frederiksted, said his board voted unanimously in favor of the project. He said, "This is the first major project that will return Frederiksted to vibrant waterfront town."
Strong opposition was raised by several witnesses to the rezoning from A-1 agricultural to R-2 residential low density for one and two family homes.
About half of the testifiers were concerned over the lack of a clause that would make the property revert back to its original zoning if the developer fails to meet it projections in a timely manner.
When asked by Liburd what guarantee William and Punch can give that this project wont remain bogged down in soliciting financial support, Kevin Rames, a principal, said money to support 50 percent of the $70 to $80 million required has already been found. His partner is Chris Elliott, owner of Mermaid Fast Ferries.
Rames said the land purchase should be completed in May and is not contingent on the rezoning of the property.
The ghosts of false hope have haunted Crucians for numerous years. Their names are Diamond Keturah, Robin Bay and Butler Bay — projects proposed that have failed to rise from the ashes, soil, clay or sand.
The majority urged that variances be given based on performance, but Rames indicated that rezoning allowed more flexibility. He said that flexibility was necessary during the planning, development and construction phases of any project.
"This property is historically a gem. We request the active involvement in the development of this property by government and the people of St. Croix," said Rames.
"Let's make plans that can benefit eight generations. Stop thinking about money alone," said Kendall Petersen of Farmers in Action as he urged all organizations to get together on the William and Punch plans.
He added that the marina element did raise concerns, which included the preservation of the wetlands, organic food production, and barriers to residents.
Specific environmental concerns included dredging the shoreline for a marina, excavation of gravesites, protecting a rare species of white mangroves, securing architectural ruins, and the preservation of historic artifacts like a workers village, rum distillery, and a railroad once used to transport sugarcane from the surrounding plantations.
Olassee Davis, an environmentalist, asked senators if they had even visited the property to gain an assessment of the resources. He said very often decisions were based on testimony and packaged proposals. Davis said he conducted a guided tour in March.
"I prefer to give variances with restrictions," said Davis. "The futures of these islands are not too bright when it comes to the preservation and protection of areas that are significant culturally and naturally."
Another area of concern for officials and residents is the relocation of the north to south shoreline road to reach the placement of the resort hotel along the beachfront.
Former Sen. Adelbert Bryan said he was not in opposition to the project, but he wanted to ensure that residents could continue to enjoy the use of the popular recreational area.
DPNR recommendations included reviews of historical resources, topography, wetlands, and ground water.
After Senate approval, the Coastal Zone Management Committee, who need to approve the required permits for construction, will hold the next hearings.
Developers want to begin construction in 2005.
Community groups represented at the hearing were Our Town Frederiksted, Frederiksted Economic Development Association, Farmers in Action and St. Croix Environmental.
Earlier in the meeting, dominated by discussion of the William and Punch project, Senators approved two rezoning requests upon recommendation from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, one for the addition of two apartments on the second story of an existing duplex and the other relocation of the South Shore Café to a former dairy cottage on a 40-acre lot north of the Howard M. Wall Boy Scout Camp.
The seven senators in attendance were Douglas Canton, Emmett Hansen, Louis Hill, David Jones, chairman, Liburd, Luther Renee and Usie Richards. Lorraine Berry, Roosevelt David, Carlton Dowe, Ronald Russell, and Sean-Michael Malone were excused. Adlah Donastorg, Norman JnoBaptiste and Celestino White were absent.
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