Note: This is a truncated version of a longer editorial. CLICK HERE for the full text, including project maps and images of the areas the authors consider to be threatened by the proposed project.
A Closer Look at Proposed Affordable Housing in Calabash Boom
St. Johnians and repeat visitors from the beyond our shores are starting to get shell-shocked with the intensity of this islands development. Its hard to keep up with the unprecedented, accelerated pace of construction. New roads, houses, condos and apartment buildings appear seemingly overnightand much more is waiting in the wings. At the same time, skyrocketing property values are causing many St. Johnians to lose hope of ever having their piece of paradise.
So its not surprising that a study conducted by the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority (VIHFA) and backed up by informal polling indicates that there is a great need for affordable housing on St. John. The large number of applicants for the Bellevue Village Apartments on Gifft Hill reaffirms this fact.
VIHFA has planned for over ten years to build 24 affordable townhouses on property it owns in Calabash Boom. But in July 2004, VIFHA announced construction plans for 72 units of affordable housing at Calabash in partnership with Reliance Housing Foundation, the same Florida-based company that is building Bellevue Village. In the new proposal, the original 24 for-sale units will be tightly packed on the parcel to also accommodate 48 rental apartments. The combined complex, which will be built and managed by Reliance, triples the long-planned scope. Amazingly, over one year later, there has been little response from the community about this 216-bedroom housing developmentpro or con. Its the proverbial elephant in the room that nobody seems to want to talk aboutat least publicly.
Perhaps the communitys silence is passive acceptance of the project; the affordable housing needs are so great that we have to do something to help the average St Johnian. Maybe its because we think were in good hands with Reliance, given their positive reputation in the V.I. It could be because many folks see this development as a political, hands-off done deal. The silence could also be because many people simply have not paid much attention to details of this proposal.
And the details are many. The Calabash site, despite being described as an 8-acre plot, is really closer to 6.5 acres when the public cemetery, existing roads and community center are subtracted. (The space is further reduced when interior access roads and parking for 100-plus cars are factored in.) According to Reliances spec sheet, the 24 townhouses (each containing 3 bedrooms) and 48 apartments (each with an average of three bedrooms) could house as many as 420 people. As a point of comparison, Bellevue Village also has 72 units but is spread over 17 acres.
The issue of density in this particular case is a thorny one considering the good intentions to provide as much housing as possible. However, residents of affordable housing deserve to live in the same conditions as the more affluent members of their community: in comfortable dwellings with adequate green space and privacy. To confine affordable houses in small, densely packed areas is unfair to these people. Proper planning today can help to avoid disappointment for residents and their neighbors.
And we cant ignore the impact any new large development will have on the environment and the already stressed infrastructure. As planned, this project will increase Coral Bays population by over 30%. Schools, roads, waste disposal, public services, utilities and the fragile coastal environment need to be part of the planning equation especially in the absence of a comprehensive management plan.
Coral Bay has long been identified as an Area of Particular Concern by the V.I. government, and just across the road from this proposed site are the rich seagrass beds, mangroves and coral reefs of Johnson Bay. The federally protected waters of Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument are nearby.
The potential for environmental degradation is high for a project of this size. Some standouts include:
1. Storm Water Management: Huge amounts of storm water currently move through the area — fed from the surrounding hillsides and a steep, mile-long, unpaved roadway that sits above the site. Interconnected guts flow across the site, effectively making it a flood plain. Altering this natural drainage with buildings, roads and parking lots of an impervious nature could affect water quality of the entire Coral Bay because of increased sediment loads.
2. Water Production, Storage and Treatment: Current plans call for a reverse osmosis plant without individual rain collecting cisterns. It is doubtful that enough fresh water can be made from the ground water wells on site and, if salt water needs to be desalinated, the effluent would have to be pumped far offshore; a monumental feat given that Coral Bay, particularly in the Calabash area, does not "flush" well.
3. Sewage Treatment: At a public meeting last fall, Reliance said it plans to purify sewage on site and release the treated water to the ground, whereupon it will flow on the surface and cross the main road. This will ultimately wind up in the bay. Both reverse osmosis and sewage treatment plants will supposedly have emergency power generation in the event of outages from storms or WAPA failures. Proper maintenance of these plants and their backup systems will be critical. These issues should be part of the Coastal Zone Management (CZM) approval process and addressed in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
CZM must require that Reliance and VIHFA provide an EIS. The EIS is a detailed report designed to analyze all aspects of a developments environmental impact. This type of study is mandated when federal money is used and when a project is likely to have a significant effect on the human environment. Given the size of this development and its proximity to Coral Bay, the Calabash Boom proposal clearly requires an EIS.
In a matter of weeks, Reliance Foundation and VIFHA will formally present their plans to CZM followed by a period for public review before CZMs ruling on the project. The Calabash site is zoned "S-Special" and, up until May 2005 (when the Legislature passed into law Act No. 6745 without public notice or comment), apartments and three-story buildings were not permitted in areas zoned as "S-Special." As a result of this legislation, Reliance will no longer have to seek a variance for their three-story apartments, and the public will be deprived of one forum to express their concerns on those issues. (It should be noted that this special zoning allows for an even greater density than proposed; something Reliance is quick to point out but somehow provides little consolation.)
St. Johns affordable housing needs are undeniable, and Calabash Boom seems like a logical choice for some units. However, the addition of Reliances 48 apartments to the long-planned townhouses significantly increases the potential for environmental degradation on a site so close to the bay. CZM, community organizations and all government agencies should review this matter with due regard for both the affordable housing needs of the island as well as Coral Bays precious natural environment and fragile infrastructure.
With so much poorly planned, "maxed out" development going on islandwide, this could be a time for our government to lead by example. Any new development should be built to be part of the existing community, not to define it.
Note: To help raise awareness about the Calabash Boom plans, a group of concerned citizens has put together a paper that examines the important issues raised above in greater detail. It is available at v
arious island locations or by e-mail request. Take it, read it, criticize it and form your own opinions. Be assured this effort is a reflection of genuine concern for all of St. John and its people.
Editor's note: Don Near is a 21-year resident of St John. He has worked at V.I. National Park since 1984, with 15 years as an interpretive ranger. He is a graduate of S.U.N.Y. College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Bob McNabb, a former psychologist, has been a business owner and hospitality industry manager in the Virgin Islands for 24 years. He resides in Coral Bay.
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