Backers of the proposed Williams & Punch resort development on the western end of St. Croix got the desired revision to their Costal Zone Management permit Monday, green-lighting a seaward expansion of the beach, and say they’re ready to proceed with the project.
But a possible storm on the horizon also was discussed, a proposed "racino bill" that would allow casino gaming machines at the island’s racetrack. If that becomes law, it changes the economic assumptions on which the resort is being planned.
The CZM Commission voted 2-1 Monday to revise to the conditions placed on the development when it was first approved Jan. 14. It was the same issue that the developers brought to CZM July 6, the question of "beach nourishment" — actually rebuilding the beach seaward from the mean high-tide line. In July the commission rejected the request, but after a new presentation Monday the request was approved.
"We provided additional information," said developer Chris Elliot after the meeting. "We provided the CZM a clearer picture of the science."
Under the original provisions, the only beach development to be allowed was to the landward side of the high-tide line. Originally the developers had asked for significantly more beach development, but had scaled back its proposal to an average of 46 feet seaward. That would allow both enough beach space and enough sandy bottom within the water for an optimum beach experience, said Wade Blackmon, an attorney and member of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, a member of the project.
And that experience will not be restricted to the tourists visiting the resort, he added. The beach, along with the resort’s restaurants, shops and casino, will be open to the public. Parking is planned for residents.
Building the beach out 46 feet will return it to its size before Hurricane Lenny scoured it out in 1996. From that point, the sand will continue down at a 10-to-1 slope.
Without the beach nourishment, the strip of sand would be too narrow, and the sea bottom contains too much bedrock and rocky outcroppings for a pleasant beach experience, Blackmon said.
One concern raised by CZM staff was that building out the beach would endanger coral and marine life. But marine consultant Elizabeth Kadison told the commission there is little out there.
"In my opinion, that area has been scoured by sand for eons," she said.
Because the beach nourishment was scaled back, developers do not plan to import any sand. All the needed material will come from dredging the channel and marina that are part of the project, with plenty leftover in reserve, Elliot said.
At July’s meeting, Commissioners Masserae Webster and Charles Peters provided the two votes to derail the proposal. Monday Peters joined Commissioner Neal Simon in voting yes, leaving Webster alone in opposition.
With the CZM permit now approved, the developers will begin working to get the necessary permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. At the same time, Elliot said, they can begin working to pick a hotelier. According to Elliot, five of the biggest hotel owners in the world have expressed interest in being part of he development. A critical part of picking one will be its commitment to employee training, he said.
The project, now being called Amalago Bay, borders Rainbow Beach on the south and Sunset Beach on the north. A total of 322 rooms are to be part of a main casino-hotel complex. Around that will be three swimming pools. An 18-hole public golf course is to run eastward up into the forested hills of Estates William and Punch. Two channels from the sea are to be carved inland, creating a lagoon for a 64-slip inland marina. The channels and lagoon will create a small beach island connected to the resort by a bridge coming over the south channel. A 56-room beach hotel is planned on the artificial island.
But while backers of the resort were pleased with Monday’s CZM approval, all is not clear skies and sunny sailing. There’s at least one cloud on the horizon, a bill in the legislature to authorize "racino gaming."
Under current V.I. law, casino gambling is allowed only in hotels and resorts. But earlier this year Traxco, the company that operates the horse track on St. Croix, asked the legislature for approval to add casino-style gambling at the track. Without it, they said, they do not take in enough revenue to continue operating.
But if the bill now being held in the Housing, Sports and Veterans’ Affairs Committee is approved, Blackmon said, it seriously affects the economic equation of the resort, possibly to the point where the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, which operates casinos in the New England area, would have to consider backing out.
"It’s a concern," he said after the meeting. "A given market is only so big. The more people you have competing for that market, the more difficult it becomes."
Resort gaming brings a portion of the players in as tourists and guests. But the tribe had always factored in the number of local people who would want to play at the casino. Taking out a portion of those players changes the equation.