Editor's note: The following is an edited version of a letter that was delivered to senators at 8 a.m. on Dec. 11. The writer's comments stem from a Senate Committee of the Whole meeting on Dec. 6 on a request for rezoning to develop a $169 million resort complex on 365 acres of land at Botany Bay. Subsequent to that meeting, the Planning and Natural Resources Department proposed a variance instead of rezoning. In a full Senate session on Dec. 11, Sen. Celestino White introduced a bill to rezone the property; that night, the Senate approved it, 8-7.
The Legislature has 90 days from the date of the public hearing to respond to the zoning amendment petition by the Botany Bay Partners. Before making your decision on the rezoning request, give yourself time to review the Planning and Natural Resources Department Division of Comprehensive and Coastal Zone Planning files, the information from the State Historic Preservation Office and the testimony given at the Dec. 6 hearing, as well as the materials submitted by Botany Bay Partners.
At the Senate hearing. Mr. William Karr [a local architect representing Botany Bay Partners] stated correctly that, because there is no good swimming beach, this cannot be a typical beach resort. Why, then, has Botany Bay Partners come up with a traditional hotel resort plan? Why not focus on a high-level vacation home resort under the present zoning? The property in question is zoned R-1; the Coastal Land and Water Use Plan designates the area as Residential/Low Density.
Botany Bay Partners claims to have greatly reduced the density now allowed, even under R-1. The Master Plan belies that. Every possible area that can be developed, is utilized. The areas that will contain the hotel, the resort accessories and the time-share/condominiums are extremely steep, much of it with slopes greater than 45 degrees. Karr's reference to the small percent of the Botany Bay Area of Particular Concern that will be developed is immaterial. What he neglected to provide were the figures of density and built area within the property owned by Botany Bay Partners that are free of restrictions prohibiting development. When those numbers are revealed, as they were by the Conservation Data Center's presentation, one can see that the proposed density is extreme.
To give itself more time and save money, Botany Bay Partners submitted a "partial" Environmental Assessment Report with its major permit application. There is no such thing as a partial Environmental Assessment Report! Mr. Karr provided a list of studies completed and used in the process of planning the project:
Studies missing, incomplete or flawed
Marine Study: Prior to Dec. 6, there was no marine study in the CZM files. Karr notes that the Area of Particular Concern indicates few marine species and low numbers of individuals belonging to those species. That has been refuted by marine biologists who have researched the area and found that the reefs of Botany Bay and Sandy Bay are among the healthiest in the Virgin Islands. No mitigation measures employed by Botany Bay Partners can possibly prevent severe damage to the marine life in them. The fact that one of the special conditions in the subdivision permit is that the permittee must post a $10 million security bond to cover mitigation and restoration costs suggests that DPNR expects adverse environmental and historical resource impacts to occur.
Archeological Study: The archeological study is only preliminary. The author says so; the State Historic Preservation Office says so. In fact, both local and federal laws require further Phase I surveys (since not all of the project area was surveyed), Phase II surveys of those areas where artifacts and historic structures were located, and possibly even Phase III studies. Furthermore, Botany Bay Partners plans to build the hotel and owners' residences and the upper part of the funicular system in locations entirely within, or encroaching upon, two of those designated historic preservation areas.
Historical Study: This very complete study is in the file. It provided valuable information on those areas of the site known to contain both prehistoric and plantation period resources.
Water Run-off Study: What is referred to may be a report submitted to DPNR in connection with the subdivision permit. That report is limited to mitigation of runoff strictly as a result of the subdivision road construction. Even then, it is inadequate, as it lacks details of road profiles, road cross-sections and results of clearing within the lots (that might disturb previously unidentified historic artifacts, destroy endangered plants or drive animals out). The amount of flow within the drainage channels, any changes in drainage patterns, and other potential impacts are not addressed.
Terrestrial Study: There is a vegetation study in the Environmental Assessment Report. It is a preliminary study, surveying only certain areas designated by Botany Bay Partners. This study cites five endangered plant species (one previously thought to be extinct) found in the selected areas, and recommends that a more extensive survey be done. The vegetation report mentions animals sighted during the plant survey, but no separate terrestrial animal survey has been conducted.
Turtle Study: There is a report "Turtle Nesting Activity at Botany Bay." This report covers just a few days of this year's nesting season. It does not include a plan for protection, which must be approved by the Division of Fish and Wildlife.
Earlier in his testimony, Mr. Karr stated that a Market Study was conducted in the initial planning stage. That study could not, as of early last week, be found in any of the three DPNR Botany Bay files. You will find reference to it in Stevie Henry's testimony. Mr. Henry quoted an observation in the study that all of the roads east of the airport to the East End are eyesores, while the road to Botany Bay is scenic and unspoiled.
The study seems to suggest that the development of a hotel at Botany Bay will be a great long-term tourist draw. It apparently does not recognize that the reason the roads to the East End hotels are so dismal is that the land bordering those roads has been subjected to unplanned development, much of it the result of spot zoning. If Botany Bay Partners has its way, that is what will happen to the road from the airport to the West End as well.
The promises made by Botany Bay Partners to neighboring communities [to provide infrastructure services, such as water to local farmers from a desalination plant to be part of the development] are things that should have been provided years ago by the government of the Virgin Islands. In fact, the public services and infrastructure should have been in place before the Bordeaux housing and all the subdivisions were approved. Once a resort of the scale planned by Botany Bay Partners is completed, the infrastructure will never catch up to the rapid growth that will follow.
Preventing development is not the issue
After the testifier period, Mr. Karr opened his rebuttal by saying that just because an area is an Area of Particular Concern does not mean "no development." This was echoed by several of the senators. Who said "no development"? Even staunch environmentalists and professional biologists recognize that total preservation of the Botany Bay Partners property is now an impossible dream. For one thing, Botany Bay Partners already has a permit for a 46-lot subdivision!
Mr. Karr failed to respond to the sincere concerns of those who oppose the development presented by Botany Bay Partners. He misrepresented specific objections raised by the testifiers and skirted the real issues. His claim that this development is an ecological development cannot be serious.
Nearly all of the rezoning opponents said they could accept a variance, so let us look at the recommendations for a variance, with conditions, as delivered by Ms. Marjorie Hendricksen- E
manuel, acting director of DPNR's Division of Comprehensive and Coastal Zone Planning: a use variance to allow a 100-room hotel with accessory uses, to include a spa, fitness center, restaurants, apparel and accessories retail, delicatessen, maintenance facility and 80 time-share units.
The phrase to allow should be changed to not to exceed. The condition that any development of the property shall be subject to the CZM Act, is not specific enough. Since the entire project impacts on the waters of Botany Bay and Sandy Bay, the entire project — including the subdivision — must come under CZM review.
I have tried to bring out a number of issues that the developers have failed to address. I ask again that you not rush into approval of the Botany Bay Partners petition for the zoning amendments. Surely you agree that, even if the area in question were not part of an Area of Particular Concern, it represents such a unique collection of diverse resources that it still merits particular concern, and therefore, very special attention.
[Gjessing modified the letter for senators who had attended the meeting on Dec. 6. Following are her tailored remarks to Sen. Celestino White.]
Senator White, last Thursday evening [Dec. 6] you stated that the witnesses speaking in opposition to the zoning "have told us what they are against; now tell me what you are for." What "we" are asking for is that developers and DPNR follow the laws: the Zoning Law, the CZM Act, the Antiquities Act.
Botany Bay Partners has not even begun to satisfy the basic goal of the CZM Act, which requires that a project plan address all potential adverse effects on the natural and cultural resources of their property. That failure is especially disappointing, because if there was ever a chance to develop a sensitive environment in an imaginative way, this is it. The balance you seek is possible — but not, in this case, by means of the traditional large-scale, hotel/condominium concept.
Editor's note: Helen Gjessing, a longtime environmental activist on St. Thomas, has chaired the League of Women Voters Committee on Planning and Environmental Quality for 20 years.
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