A proposal to permit a floating restaurant and lounge to set up operations near a cay in Pillsbury Sound got mixed reactions at an online public hearing on Tuesday afternoon.
Cowgirl Bebop, as the project is known, is “a great idea, but it might not be a good fit for St. John,” said Andrew Penn, chairman of the St. John Committee of Coastal Zone Management.
Cowgirl Bebop LLLP has applied for a major CZM permit to moor a vessel – approximately 120 feet long and 40 feet wide – and to install eight moorings for recreational boaters in the waters south of Mingo Cay.
The project is designed to offer an attraction in U.S. waters for boaters who might otherwise head to locations in the British Virgin Islands, such as the Willy T., a well-known party boat anchored off Norman Island.
The restaurant/lounge is intended to be a “zero discharge operation” according to Amy Dempsey, president of Bioimpact, Inc., an environmental consulting firm representing the developer. Nothing will be dumped in the sea; all waste will be off-loaded regularly on St. Thomas by two support vessels.
According to the permit proposal, gray water (from dishwashing) and black water (sewage) will be stored in holding tanks equipped with alarms set to go off when they reach 50 percent capacity.
Food will be prepped on St. Thomas or St. John and delivered to the vessel. The restaurant and bar will be open daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and a reservation system will be established.
Attorney Adriane Dudley said the business is expected to generate 30 jobs directly and another 70 indirectly. Cowgirl Bebop will not participate in the territory’s tax incentive programs, and will contribute to the tax base by paying income tax, gross receipts tax and payroll taxes, she said.
The site near Mingo Cay was selected for several reasons, according to Dempsey. One reason is its accessible location, only minutes away from Red Hook on St. Thomas and Cruz Bay on St. John, areas already popular with recreational boaters.
Perhaps more important is the site’s relative absence of coral reefs or seagrass, thus minimizing the environmental impact of installing moorings and blocking sunlight to marine life. Dempsey said it’s difficult to find a sheltered area with a sandplain large enough to accommodate a vessel the size of Cowgirl Bebop.
Although the plans are still in the design phase, Cowgirl Bebop is expected to be approximately the size of the Mister B or the Grand Vic, commercial barges that have operated between St. Thomas and St. John.
STJ-CZM Committee member Brion Morrisette questioned whether other locations had been considered. Dempsey said that Thatch Cay, Great St. James and Hans Lollick were considered as potential sites but eliminated because of potential damage to coral reefs and seagrass beds nearby.
The project’s location gave several members of the public reason to question the proposed permit. “I’m out on the sound every day,” said Dan Boyd, a resident of nearby Lovango Cay. “It’s not a protected area. There’s a current and counter current. It’s not going to be ‘On Golden Pond.’ It’s going to be rough.”
STJ-CZM Committee member Rafe Boulon said the environmental assessment provided by the developers lacks detail and does not thoroughly address the interaction of wind, waves and currents.
(In the late 1980s, three boy scouts drowned in a boating accident near the location proposed for Cowgirl Bebop when an unexpected swell overturned their dinghy.)
The developers said in the event of anticipated foul weather, Cowgirl Bebop will be towed to a more sheltered location that has not yet been determined.
They also plan to put Cowgirl Bebop in drydock from August through October when the storm season is most active.
For safety reasons, the developers said they will discourage customers from diving off the vessel or swimming from other boats to Cowgirl Bebop. Alex Golubitsky, general counsel to Cowgirl Bebop, said, “We don’t have the ability to prohibit people from swimming. All we can do is refuse to serve them.”
Boyd said it would be impossible to prevent people from swimming from boats moored or anchored near Cowgirl Bebop because all beaches in the territory are public. Cowgirl Bebop’s proposed location is 471-feet from Mingo Cay, which is privately owned, and 560-feet from Grass Cay, a wildlife sanctuary.
Although several members of the charter boat industry testified in favor of “water-accessible food and beverage attractions,” several members of the STJ-CZM Committee questioned the lack of regulations and guidelines for businesses of this type.
STJ-CZM Committee member David Silverman asked for clarification regarding the value of the submerged land that would be leased to Cowgirl Bebop. No determination has been made yet, officials said.
Concerns about regulating floating bars and restaurants have surfaced since a pizza boat set up business in Christmas Cove off St. Thomas several years ago. More recently, a floating taco bar generated controversy last year when DPNR gave it a temporary permit to operate in a pristine location at the east end of St. John.
“I’m not seeing the government present regulations and guidelines [for this type of business],” said STJ-CZM Committee member Kurt Marsh. “Is there any talk yet about the marine industry we’re trying to bolster?”
Department of Planning and Natural Resources attorney Vonetta Norman said DPNR has held discussions within the department. “We’re trying to gauge how to address these things,” she said.
The lack of regulation gave pause to STJ-CZM Chairman Penn. “We all know this is a growing trend. If we allow one, we’re going to have to allow another. It seems we have put the cart before the horse.”
The project was previously considered by CZM as a minor permit that did not require a public meeting, but it was changed to a major permit after generating controversy at a town meeting designed to introduce the public to the project.