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SEA Wins Right To Build Nature Reserve

A recent decision by the V.I. Board of Land Use Appeals means the St. Croix Environmental Association (SEA) will soon have a Coastal Zone Management permit for a nature center, classrooms and caretaker cottage at its 100-acre property surrounding Southgate Pond.

In May 2007 the CZM Committee rejected SEA’s application for a major CZM permit for coastal zone construction at the site to build within the property, which SEA calls Southgate Coastal Reserve. A month later SEA filed an appeal with the V.I. Board of Land Use Appeals.

In a unanimous decision Jan. 26, the board ruled the CZM Committee violated the CZM Act when it denied SEA the permit and that SEA’s proposals more than met the act’s requirements, according to a statement from SEA.

The board’s decision requires the CZM Committee to issue the permit to SEA.

Reached Monday afternoon, CZM Committee member Masserae Sprauve-Webster said CZM was very unlikely to appeal the verdict to the courts, but that no formal decision had been made.

“We could, in theory, go to the courts, but in my experience, I don’t know if we have ever done that,”she said. “I imagine we will just go ahead and sign off on the permit.”

Once the permit is formally issued, SEA will be legally permitted to move forward with its plans, which will include the construction of trails and bird blinds to allow observation of wildlife at Southgate Pond, an important habitat for resident and migrant ducks, herons, egrets, and shorebirds.

The beach adjoining the pond also serves as a nesting habitat for hawksbill, green, and leatherback sea turtles, which are all protected under the Endangered Species Act, according to SEA.

But being allowed to proceed does not mean work will begin right after the ink dries on the permit.

“At this point, SEA needs to step back and see what parts we can start immediately and what parts need fundraising,” said SEA Executive Director Paul Chakroff Monday. Since the filing of the appeal, the world economy took a major downturn in 2008; as a result, the funding SEA had in place disappeared, he said.

“So now we need to regroup and identify or restore new and additional funding,” he said.

The nature reserve is already used by school children on environmental field trips, as well as the public at large.

In the past, SEA officials have said they hope these facilities will become a place where local students can experience and study the salt pond, wetlands, marine and upland habitats associated with the reserve, and will also be available for graduate and post-graduate groups from off-island.

SEA believes the construction of the reserve center will enhance St. Croix as an ecotourism destination by providing increased access to the unique salt pond ecosystem at Southgate.

When SEA applied for its permit, some residents raised concerns that the organization would halt the popular practice of camping at Southgate during Easter Week.

SEA committed, however, to allowing the camping to occur, but under regulations that will put a halt to environmentally destructive practices such as the use of pit toilets, removal of beach vegetation, and parking of vehicles on the beach.

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