Daily News Op-Ed – Coral Bay on the Brink – Part 3

This is a 3-part Op-Ed feature published by the Virgin Islands Daily News (click on image for full screen – or read the text lower on this page).

Part 1: January 21, In the Beginning
Part 2: January 22, A Shocking Wave of Wrongs
Part 3: January 23, It’s Not a ‘Done Deal’ 


                                                            By David Silverman

– Editor’s Note. This is Part 3 of a three-part Daily News Op-Ed series on the controversial Summers End Group marina development in Coral Bay. The author, David Silverman, is a Coral Bay, St. John, resident and a founding member of Save Coral Bay.  He was a regular visitor for 30 years before moving permanently to Coral Bay seven years ago. He served as a member a Coastal Zone Management committee in New York for 10 years and for five years was the chairman of a Planning Board.

                                      It’s Not a ‘Done Deal’

The proponents of the marina have offered only very limited justification for their proposal, and the arguments most frequently heard for its development rely on few – or no – facts.  Here are some of the most frequently encountered statements:

It’s a “done deal” so why fight it?  Hardly a fact-based argument in favor of the marina, this is nonetheless the most common reason people give not to oppose the project.  It is, in fact, totally untrue and to the extent there was any “deal” done before permitting, this would be an excellent reason to oppose, not support the project.

The “done deal” myth relies on the fact that Governor deJongh announced his support three months before the application was even filed.

It relies on the fact that one of the main spokesmen for the project is also the Chairman of the Virgin Islands Port Authority and an ex-Senator.

It relies on the fact that the developers believe that by engaging in back room conversations with influential people, they can by-pass the requirements of law and regulation.

This preys on people’s fears that they cannot win against “big money.”

None of this is fact.  It is fiction.

Here are the facts.  The local permits require approval by CZM (done).

They require approval by the governor – and newly elected Governor Kenneth Mapp has publicly said the marina is too large.

They require approval by the Legislature, which declined to review the permit because of pending appeals).

They require the agreement of the Board of Land Use Appeals, which has not heard the appeal yet.

And then they would need to get through the next level of appeals to the V.I. Superior Court and, if necessary, the V.I. Supreme Court appeals.

A done deal ? Not even close.

And this only accounts for the torturous path through the local permitting process.  The marina also will require a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  Their process involves coordination with a multitude of federal agencies, reviewing endangered species, water quality, environmental impacts, navigational hazards, public interest, cumulative impacts and other factors.

Any failure of the Army Corps of Engineers to properly analyze all of these factors will result in challenges and appeals in the U.S. federal court system.

The process can, literally, take years.  A done deal? Not even close.

Will it “improve the water quality” of Coral Bay?  Decidedly not!

The proponents like to claim that the water in Coral Bay is so degraded that it needs the construction of a marina to “improve water quality.” This entire argument is based on two fallacies:

First, that the current water quality is highly degraded, and second, that construction of a marina will improve conditions.

Let’s look at these individually: Summers End,  through their environmental engineer Amy Dempsey, provided data on water quality measurements in Coral Bay harbor.

When I asked the chief microbiologist at the Health Risk Assessment Branch of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to interpret these numbers, her response was, “You would interpret your water body to be very clean and meeting our recommended criteria.”

In other words, there is no evidence whatsoever that Coral Bay harbor has bacterial contamination.  This conclusion is based on the data supplied by the Summers End Group.

So, is Coral Bay suffering from degraded water quality due to bacterial contamination.  Emphatically and scientifically: No.

And what impact would the construction of a marina have on water quality?  By the applicant’s own acknowledgment, the construction and pile driving will suspend sediments, which would need to be contained using “turbidity curtains.” They provided no data on the type, design, or efficacy of these devices.

And once the marina is in operation, what would be the effect of the propeller wash from mega-yachts attempting to berth in shallow harbor waters?  The applicant provided no data whatsoever.

Expert yachtsmen know the answer, and anyone who has watched a yacht berth knows the answer.  The suspension of silt, and the degradation of the sea bottom is extreme and irreversible.  Once the sea grass is killed, there is nothing to hold sediments in place and they travel to adjacent areas, causing further die off and sediment release.

This marina is probably the worst possible thing one could do to the water quality of Coral Bay harbor.

Will it create jobs and economic growth?  Not if you consider the full impact!

Finally, we hear a set of economic arguments for the marina, claiming job creation and economic activity.

The jobs argument (the applicant claims the project will create 90 new jobs) is particularly flawed.  The current businesses where the marina would be built now employ about 40 people – but the applicants failed to count the loss of these jobs in their number, so their actual claim of net job creation should be 50 jobs.

Of those 50 jobs, all except for about five are for service staff in restaurants and retail shops, and in marina maintenance work.  The professional positions – marina management – are all targeted for off-island experienced professionals who would utilize the “apartments for marina management” described in the application.  There is little or no opportunity created for local families.  Total fiction.

The few jobs that would be created are highly seasonal because the marina would operate at full capacity for less than half the year. Seasonal labor is ill-suited for a family wage-earner who needs to provide income 12 months a year, not just during high season.

But the most insidious fallacy in the entire Summers End marina proposition has to do with economic activity.

The applicant was required, under CZM law, to assess the total economic impact of the project, which includes positive impact as well as negative impact.  While proclaiming – without any supporting data whatsoever — that the marina would generate “$8.7 million per year” in new economic activity, the developers totally ignored the negative impacts that the construction and operation of this marina would have on the existing, healthy, eco-tourism economy of Coral Bay.

Coral Bay is the preferred vacation destination for literally thousands of people who come to enjoy the proximity to the Virgin Islands National Park, the lack of traffic and noise, and the “quaint and quirky” character of this remote part of St John.

Our biggest traffic problems are herds of sheep and occasional donkeys in the road.  The sounds at night are tree frogs, wind and waves.  Impose on this scene two years of relentless pile driving for eight hours a day, six days a week.  Impose on this the noise and exhaust of diesel generators, water deliveries, and all of the associated environmental impacts associated with the construction and operation of a marina covering 28 acres of Coral Bay harbor, and what do you get: The entire appeal of Coral Bay as a vacation destination is disrupted.

Coral Bay currently supports a thriving tourism economy that contributes around $65 million per year in economic activity.  This is all derived from the 250 individually owned and operated vacation villas, the meals and activities purchased by the visitors, villa service and maintenance, and similar tourism-based expenditures.

When we surveyed property managers and individual villa owners, they estimated that the disruption caused by the construction of the marina, and the change in character of Coral Bay caused by the operation of the proposed project, would cause a rapid decline in occupancy and future bookings.

This economic driver for St John, built on the personal investment of hundreds of individuals, would suffer a severe negative impact from the Summers End marina.

Based on the data we accumulated, and the evidence we provided to the St. John CZM Committee, the net economic impact of the Summers End Group marina is a staggering loss of almost $110 million during the first five years of the project.

Even a small decline in Coral Bay tourism – a 10 percent drop – would more than offset any positive economic contribution from the marina.

Is the Summers End Group marina good for the economy of St John?  Absolutely not.

It would be an unmitigated economic disaster causing years of real hardship for all residents of Coral Bay.

What next ?

The St. John Coastal Zone Management Committee members failed to do their job, as required by the CZM Act.

They did not require a complete application from the developers, contrary to the rules and regulations.

They did not convene a proper public hearing and decision meeting, contrary to law and regulations.

They did not properly weigh the environmental assessment against the Goals, Policies and Standards of the CZM Act.

And finally, they approved a permit and Trust Land Lease without having any evidence or findings that such a use was in the public interest.

These and many other problems are all highlighted in the legal appeal documents filed with the Board of Land Use Appeals.  Private citizens have had to raise money, retain attorneys, analyze documents and perform the work that should have been done by DPNR and CZM.  At a cost of tens of thousands of private dollars, the residents of the Virgin Islands are doing the job of government.

Fortunately, through the support of thousands of individuals in social media, through 700 individual donors to the Save Coral Bay campaign, and through hundreds of local residents, a significant force in opposition to these ill-conceived plans has been created.

To date over $85,000 has been raised in the funding campaign.  Two prominent local attorneys with decades of experience in Virgin Islands environmental law are fighting on behalf of the community.  And at the federal level, two top-tier environmental law firms have offered their services pro bono to provide the legal guidance to ensure that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers follows the dictates of federal law.

Was this a pattern in the deJongh Administration?

In the waning days of Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s Administration, three major development proposals were dropped into the laps of the people of the Virgin Islands, with virtually no opportunity for review and scrutiny.  The Atlantic Basin Refining deal for the St. Croix HOVENSA refinery, the Mandahl Bay marina, hotel and convention center on St. Thomas, and the Summers End Marina in Coral Bay.  The 30th Legislature, in its wisdom, declined to ratify the ABR-HOVENSA agreement.  They declined to consider the St. John Marina permits.  And they didn’t take up the Mandahl Bay agreement.

We applaud the actions of the 30th Legislature in taking the public interest to heart and not rubber-stamping every deal requested by the governor.

We hope that our new government, headed by Gov. Kenneth Mapp and Lt. Gov. Osbert Potter, together with the 31st Legislature, will learn from the mistakes of the past year.

Development projects on public lands need to be vetted by the public in the full light of day.

Public interest determinations need to be made by the public, with ample opportunity to understand, to comment, and to offer alternatives.  Our public lands are precious and limited resources, and we need to treat them accordingly.

We firmly believe that the rights of all of the people of Coral Bay will prevail over the wishes of a few developers.  We will work tirelessly to ensure that the requirements of the law are followed, that the public’s interest is considered, and that the future of our Virgin Islands is controlled by its citizens – not by private interests.