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Undercurrents: CZM Quietly Approves Harbor Landfill to Widen Veterans Drive

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

After decades of controversy, the Veterans Drive widening project, requiring major landfill of the Charlotte Amalie Harbor, has passed not with a bang but a whimper.

In case you didn’t know – and almost no one except those directly involved did know – the St. Thomas Coastal Zone Management Committee, a citizens committee appointed by the governor, approved the bulk of the administration’s proposal last month.

The project had long ago received the support of CZM government staff at the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, as well as at least two community groups, Downtown Revitalization Inc. and the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce. But questions remain about the source of the landfill material, where to relocate corals and sea grass beds disturbed by the fill, the estimated cost and the estimated length of time for completion.

Phase I, involving the area of the Waterfront from Hospital Gade to Long Bay Road, was actually approved two years ago, setting the stage for the remainder of the project, which involves landfill all along the Waterfront from the Legislature building and Fort Christian to the Windward Passage Hotel, thus allowing for widening the main artery in the downtown district from two to four lanes, plus adding a median strip.

Public Works, the lead agency for the project, requested approval of Phase II, that is, the heart of the project, as an amendment to the permit allowing Phase I.

“We approved it with conditions,” CZM committee member Winston Adams said last week. Neither he nor committee member Richard Brown could immediately remember the date of the meeting at which the vote was taken, but they said it was in September. Neither could immediately say what the conditions were and referred questions to CZM staff at DPNR.

As the outgoing Gov. John deJongh Jr. administration tries to finalize major projects before a new governor is seated, “This is the season where rush jobs are going,” Adams observed.

Anthony Richards, St. Thomas-St. John permits coordinator, said the committee meeting took place Sept. 11 after the required public notice. The amended permit was approved on a vote of 4 to 0, with Adams, Brown, Chairman Austin Monsanto and Karl Purcell all voting in favor. The fifth member of the committee, Peggy Simmonds, was absent.

There was public notice of the meeting, Richards said.

He supplied a copy of the CZM staff memorandum, dated Sept. 8, recommending approval of the project and including the following conditions for the Phase II approval:

– The permittee shall notify the Division of Coastal Zone Management two working days prior to the commencement of construction in accordance with the proposed activities.
– Erosion and sedimentation control measures as outlined in the application and environmental assessment report shall be installed and implemented throughout the site prior to commencement of any work. CZM shall be notified once all erosion and sedimentation control measures are in place for each phase of the project. All erosion and sedimentation and boom fences shall be inspected daily to ensure proper function during all construction activities on the site until completion of this project. The developer will fix any deficient measures immediately.
– All applicable territorial and federal permits or other necessary approvals (i.e. air pollution control permit, etc.) must be obtained and copies submitted to CZM prior to commencement of any construction activities.
– The stockpiles of dirt from digging and grading shall be stabilized, using erosion control matting or EPA-approved polymer to ensure erosion and sedimentation is minimized.
– The permittee shall incur all costs associated with solid waste disposal. Solid waste shall be disposed at the Bovoni landfill.
– Any changes to design plans, constructions methods or any change to any monitoring or other plan must be first approved by CZM. Any permit modifications must be applied for in accordance with the CZM Act and the rules and regulations.

The conditions are in addition to conditions and restrictions contained in the Phase I permit and modifications Public Works has made to the proposal over the years as it was reviewed in various forums.

As currently approved, the project will entail creating a four-lane highway, landscaped median, sidewalk on the north side, promenade on the south side, circling the Legislature and Fort Christian, and five look-out battlements built of fill jutting into the harbor.

Most initial work is to be done on the sea side, using barges. Barge access has been designed to avoid the West Indian Co. dock and, “to the greatest extent possible, private mooring within the bay,” according to the report.

Phase II will directly impact 5.71 acres of submerged aquatic habitat, sea grass, coral and hard bottom acres of mud bottom, which is sparsely colonized by algae.

The staff report concludes there will be little adverse impact on the human side of the project. It does not interrupt any neighborhoods or include schools, and there are alternate routes for access of police and fire service north of the area during the construction. Additionally, Public Works says it will keep one or more lanes of the road open in each direction throughout construction.

The administration has signaled that it intends to use primarily federal highway funds for the project.

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