Daily News Op Ed – Coral Bay On The Brink – Part 1

This is a 3-part Op-Ed feature published by the Virgin Islands Daily News, beginning January 21, 2015 (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’ 



   Coral Bay on the Brink                            

How government back-room dealing, conflict of interest and indifference to a community’s best interest could put a Virgin Islands public treasure into a private developer’s pocket
Part 1: TODAY, In the Beginning
Part 2: THURSDAY, A Shocking Wave of Wrongs
Part 3: FRIDAY, It’s Not a ‘Done Deal’ 

                                                By David Silverman
– Editor’s Note. This is Part 1 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 of a Coastal Zone Management committee in New York for 10 years and for five years was the chairman of a Planning Board.

                                                In the Beginning

If you were to look at a painting of Coral Bay from the early 19th century, the most prominent features would be the stately Emmaus Moravian church, a few boats anchored in the harbor, and a scattering of homesteads and settlements along the shoreline.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the scene is not much different – the Moravian church still stands on the hillside with a commanding view over the harbor.  Where the mountainsides once were largely uninhabited, we now see clusters of homes, and the once-busy harbor is still busy, although today it is with pleasure boats rather than commercial schooners.

That connection with the past, which has endured for centuries, is now in jeopardy.

A development group has  obtained Coastal Zone Management approval to build a massive mega yacht marina in Coral Bay harbor, replete with luxury retail outlets, parking lots and plans for gated communities, a yacht club, spas and fine dining.

This vision is so fundamentally different from the Coral Bay of the past 300 years that the community is literally shaking its collective head in bewilderment.

When did everything change?  How did sleepy, quiet, quaint Coral Bay become the focal point of a multi-million-dollar commercial proposal to totally transform a community that has retained its character for centuries?  How has this story unfolded and how will it end?

There is no such thing as an unbiased perspective; we all bring to the table our personal background and experiences as we interpret events around us.  I first visited St John around 30 years ago, and I moved to Coral Bay permanently seven years ago.  I am not “born here” and I cannot claim to be a transplant from a long time back.  I am a relative newcomer, but I do have more than the average experience in land use planning.  I worked for10 years as a  member of a Coastal Zone Management committee in New York, and for five years as the chairman of a Planning Board.

I chose to live in Coral Bay because of my love of nature and history and the opportunity to be part of a diverse community – West Indian families, boaters, artists, young families and transplanted retirees – where everyone has at least one thing in common: a love of St. John and Coral Bay.

Coral Bay Development

From my perspective, I would say that the current character of Coral Bay is largely the result of a real estate boom in the 1990s.  Before then, only a handful of boats were in the harbor, and a few homes on the hillsides.  With the influx of home development came an influx of boats, some recreational, some live-aboard.  The community of Coral Bay took on the character of a coastal community rather than an isolated rural outpost.  It became a haven for artists and musicians, for builders and artisans and for people who value a peaceful way of life, close to nature.

Along with development on the hillsides came construction of steep roads, often without adequate thought or appropriate engineering for the heavy tropical rains.  We began to see plumes of red mud cascading down those roadways and pouring into Coral Bay harbor during every heavy rainfall.  Where runoff used to flow through the major natural drainage guts, new development diverted that rainfall onto the roads, and the result was the loss of natural filtration and unabated sediment transport into Coral Bay harbor.  The resulting sediments caused increased turbidity and impacted the health of the seabed.

By 2006, the changing conditions of Coral Bay harbor had motivated residents to discuss ways to correct the mistakes of improper development.  The Coral Bay Community Council took a leadership role in seeking federal funding for projects to reduce the transport of sediments into the harbor from storm water runoff.  Retention ponds, water bars, and culverts were installed – with large contributions of time and materials from residents to match the federal grant money.

At the same time, others began to think about changing the way the harbor was being used.  Was there a need for a marina, an improved dock, fuel, water, and pump-out facilities?

First Marina Proposal

In 2005, the first proposal to build a marina in Coral Bay harbor was presented to CZM.  This was for a relatively modest marina covering about five acres and designed for the small boats typically found in Coral Bay harbor at that time.

The marina was to be located in a somewhat protected location, and although there were substantial concerns about sea grass and other environmental impacts, it ultimately was approved by the CZM committee with a significant number of special conditions.

However, the economy changed during the two-year review process and the developers, Robert O’Connor and Brion Morrisette, decided to abandon the project.

Sometime around 2008, the principals of another developer, the Summers End Group – Rick Barksdale and Chaliese Summers – arrived.  This was about the same time that the first marina project was floundering for lack of investor interest.

It appears as though Barksdale and Summers took over that project, massively expanded it, brought in some new financial supporters, and proceeded to create the current plan.

Summers End Group Proposal

The “St. John Marina” project by the Summers End Group is huge – one of the largest in the entire Caribbean – and it is an absurd size for Coral Bay harbor.  Covering 28 acres of a roughly 80-acre harbor, its main pier would extend almost 1,000 feet into the harbor, meaning it would be about two-thirds of the way to the opposite shore.

The massive marina would have slips for 145 boats, including mega yachts up to 210 feet in length, so the marina would have the capacity for 10,000  feet of boat.  This would quadruple the total boat use of the harbor now, since it presently is occupied by around 100 boats averaging 35 feet in length.

The fixed marina structures would occupy 1.7 acres, and it is built on 1,333 steel pilings.

That number of pilings would make this one of the largest piling projects in the entire Caribbean.

This marina, if built, will preclude use of the harbor for any other purpose.  It covers virtually all of the deep water of the inner harbor, and it would force all existing boats to be relocated into a tight mooring area on the eastern side of the harbor – a mooring area controlled by the Summers End Group.

Needless to say the public was shocked and dismayed by the magnitude of this proposal.

Planning and Permitting of Marinas

The approval for development of a marina is not a simple task, but it is one with clearly defined steps and regulatory requirements.

It begins with zoning. A marina can only be developed offshore of land that is zoned for that purpose.

It then moves into the Coastal Zone Management process, which reviews the project and its anticipated impacts on existing resources,  and evaluates all of this in the context of the explicit goals, policies, and standards of the Virgin Islands CZM Act.

It then receives a CZM permit – if, and only if,  the proposal is “consistent with” these goals and policies, and if it adequately mitigates all adverse environmental impacts. then, and only then, is it entitled to a CZM permit.

In the CZM Act, the “environment” is defined to be the physical environment (for example: natural resources, plants, animals), the economic environment, and the social environment (history, culture, people).

For projects that are built on public lands, such as a marina built on submerged land (all of which is owned by the people of the Virgin Islands), an additional step is required:  The CZM Committee must determine whether the use of the public land requested by the private developer is “in the public interest and will not adversely affect the public health, safety and general welfare or cause significant adverse environmental effects” (VICZMA 911(c)2).

The history of coastal zone planning in the Virgin Islands dates back to 1979, when the Legislature enacted the comprehensive Coastal Zone Management Act.  The federal Coastal Zone Management Act had been enacted in 1972, in recognition that the nation’s shorelines and wetlands were being developed in a haphazard fashion, often with severe environmental consequences.

Given the limited extent of coastal resources and their high environmental value, it was deemed appropriate to manage development of the coastal zone through special goals, policies and standards.  Every coastal state and territory was provided incentives to enact their local CZM laws, consistent with the federal law, creating a special layer of control ensuring balanced utilization and preservation of coastal resources.

In the Virgin Islands, the CZM Act lays out a set of Goals, Policies and Standards that every project in the coastal zone must conform to in order to receive a CZM permit.  It also identifies areas of the coastline that are suitable for different types of activity.

Coral Bay harbor was specifically recognized in the Environmental Impact Statement for the 1979 CZM Act as an “Area of Particular Concern” because of its special natural characteristics.  The western shore of Coral Bay harbor is a lush marine meadow, where the dominant feature of the submerged land is thick turtle grass, providing a foraging habitat for endangered sea turtles, shellfish, and immature reef and pelagic fish.

The 1979 CZM Act specifically identified this shoreline as suitable for conservation and preservation – and not for development.  On the other hand, the northernmost end of the harbor, well protected from tropical force wave action, was designated as an appropriate area for retail marina development.

Unfortunately, the Summers End Group chose to ignore the guidance of the CZM Act and proposed their marina in the worst possible location for a marina in Coral Bay harbor.

Best Practices in Planning the Use of Public Lands

In the case of projects that are constructed on public land, the involvement of all segments of the affected community at an early stage is an essential  element of project success.  A marina, for example, is built upon submerged land beneath the sea.

In the Virgin Islands, all submerged land is owned by the public, not by private landowners or developers.

There are very specific conditions that must be followed before public land is leased for private projects; these conditions are laid out in the CZM Act.  Specifically, the law requires that the use of public trust lands must be “in the public interest” and that any use must “not cause significant adverse environmental effects.”.

The law also requires that there be “no reasonably feasible alternative … which would reduce the adverse environmental impact.”

These are mandatory – not optional –  requirements before any private entity can use the trust lands of the Virgin Islands.  And in the case of the Summers End Group marina project, these standards were essentially ignored.

The best practice for ensuring that a project is “in the public interest” is for the affected public to be involved at an early stage in the planning of the project.  People in the community need to understand exactly what is being proposed, how it will impact their lives, positively as well as negatively, and form a conclusion as to whether the proposed activity is in their best interest.

This is a burden on a developer – but it is a necessary burden, and it is  mandatory according to the law.  If a developer cannot demonstrate that a project is “in the public interest,” then any use of public trust lands must be denied.

The Summers End Group claimed to have consulted “with the community” during the years prior to their application.  However, virtually the entire community of Coral Bay, if not all of St John, was totally shocked and surprised by the massive extent of the proposed marina, the scope of land based construction, the impact on peoples’ lives and livelihoods and the  impact on the beloved environment when the project was unveiled in July 2014.

There is no way that any reasonable person could ever conclude that there had been consultation or involvement of the community in the planning process.

That is not how projects involving public land are supposed to be conducted.

In fact, the Summers End Group developers had been very coy and secretive about their project.

While the principals attended meetings in Coral Bay to hear concerns people expressed about the harbor and the community, they never shared one shred of information about their private plans.

When the community hosted a visioning meeting in October 2013, facilitated by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the question of marina plans came up.  This would have been the perfect opportunity for SEG to share ideas and to solicit public input.  However, when asked about their plans, a principal of SEG said “I don’t want to discuss them because it is too early in the process and all you will do is complain.”

Is there a lesson to be learned here?  Absolutely.  Projects involving use of public trust lands must begin with consultation and community involvement.  They must take into account the reasonable concerns of residents, the potential for adverse economic, social, and environmental impacts.  The developers must not only consult, but they must act on the wishes of the public.

In the end, if the project cannot be seen to further “the welfare or well-being of the general public,” then it is not in the public interest and it cannot, under the V.I. law, be approved.

Yet it was.

Tomorrow: Part 2, “A Shocking Wave of Wrongs”.