Editor's note: This is a copy sent to the Source of another letter sent to the governor regarding the rezoning of Botany Bay.
I am writing to ask you to veto Bill 24-0199, rezoning of Estate Botany Bay from R-1 to R-3, which was passed by the Legislature against the recommendations of the Planning and Natural Resources Department, as well as against the wishes of many public interest groups and scientific experts. Development of Botany Bay will cause unacceptable and irrevocable harm to both the terrestrial and marine environment of the area, both through the process of developing the area into a resort and residential community and through human activities once the resort and residential community are developed.
Permitting development of Estate Botany Bay without careful oversight by DPNR, as would have occurred if a variance had been granted instead of rezoning, would be an irresponsible act of government.
My concern with the rezoning of Botany Bay is that of a citizen, a voter and a marine biologist. I am deeply disturbed by the action of the Legislature, which demonstrates total disregard for the counsel and careful study of DPNR as well as the wishes of VI residents. While my concerns are for the general environmental harm that this rezoning will cause, my arguments against rezoning are based on my expertise as a marine biologist. I am an assistant professor of marine biology at the University of the Virgin Islands and I hold a Ph.D. in zoology. My field of specialization is corals and coral reefs, which I have studied around the world for over 15 years.
Botany Bay and the area surrounding it is the last remaining undeveloped pristine area off St. Thomas. Although no recent quantitative marine surveys of the environment there have been done, qualitative surveys demonstrate that the marine environment there contains "an abundance of sea life," as described in the developers' report on the area.
I personally have visited and rapidly surveyed this area with other marine biologists. We found a healthy reef community there thriving with fish, hard corals, sea fans, algae and many other marine creatures. What was especially remarkable about the coral community there was the general lack of disease and the presence of large colonies of elkhorn corals.
Elkhorn corals have been one of the primary components of Caribbean coral reefs. They were a primary contributor to the reef framework and they thrive in high water flow. In the 1980s, their populations were decimated — by some estimates by 95 percent — due to diseases and hurricanes. The "ghosts" of these magnificent corals — their skeletal remnants — are visible in many areas around the Virgin Islands, while it is rare to see many large, healthy colonies in one place.
In fact, this coral remains so rare throughout the Caribbean that since 1999 the U.S. government has been considering listing it as a threatened or endangered species. It already is listed, along with all other corals, in a regional legal agreement for the wider Caribbean called the Protocol on Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife to ensure protection and recovery, as well as to maintain populations at the highest possible levels. The elkhorn corals in Botany and Sandy Bays are healthier and greater in number than in any other area off St. Thomas or St. John.
The presence of these healthy elkhorn colonies in Botany and Sandy Bays is a very hopeful sign. Since the '80s, coral reefs of the Caribbean, like other coral reefs around the world, have continued to suffer from natural disasters as well as increased impacts from human activities. This means that many of our coral reefs are now suffering from multiple stresses that make recovery difficult. In the past, any one of these impacts alone may not have greatly affected the reefs. Today, due to the multiple stresses impinging upon them, they remain very fragile and their recovery is uncertain.
Places with healthy coral populations are valuable not only in and of themselves but also because they provide propagules that travel by water currents and reseed other nearby areas. Part of Estate Botany Bay and most of the areas adjacent to it were declared an Area of Particular Concern by the V.I. government in 1994. Any harm done adjacent to the APC also will have an impact on the APC — there are no walls in the marine environment.
Coral reefs are of the utmost importance to the Virgin Islands. They provide physical protection for our coastlines from ocean waves, storm damage and erosion. They also are of tremendous economic value in terms of fisheries and tourism. In fact, they are the foundation of our tourist industry: Tourists come here for white sand beaches, clear waters and beautiful underwater scenery. If our coral reefs continue to degrade, so will our tourist industry.
Although no quantitative marine studies have been done to estimate the impact of the rezoning proposed by Botany Bay developers on the marine environment, there is no doubt that development of the area will cause harm to the marine environment. The negative impacts of development on coral reefs in combination with other human activities and natural disasters have been documented around the world. We have only to look at Jamaica for a glimpse of the level of change and destruction possible.
The actual construction of the development and resort if rezoning is allowed will lead to runoff and sedimentation, both of which will have negative impacts on the coral reef community. If a structure is put in place to minimize erosion at Sandy Bay, it also will certainly have a negative impact on the marine environment, both directly during construction and indirectly in terms of changes in current flow.
Once the resort and development are in place, human activities will be a source of constant stress for the marine environment. Currently, impact from human activities is minimal. Only a handful of people have access to Estate Botany Bay by land, and use for fishing and marine recreation is minimal.
At 70 percent occupancy, if two people are assumed to occupy each unit in the development proposed in the rezoning application, there could be 420 guests using the area at any one time — without taking into consideration the number of people employed at the resort. Motorized water activities, which have many negative impacts on the marine environment, will be permitted in Sandy Bay, although not in Botany Bay.
There are few St. Thomas areas that have remained unaffected by human activities, and Botany Bay is one of them. It is an invaluable resource and treasure that should be cared for with great consideration. It was recommended in 1993 that the area be made the cornerstone of a territorial park. Despite the APC designation in 1994, a management plan for the area has yet to be developed.
If any development occurs at Botany Bay, it should be done under a variance after an APC management plan has been put in place — and with strict oversight that insures that the area is developed only as has been proposed, with a minimal amount of harm. It is very clear that rezoning of Estate Botany Bay is an irresponsible act that will cause unacceptable and irrevocable harm to both the terrestrial and marine environments, ruining another piece of our dwindling natural environment and the birthright of our children.
Sandra L. Romano
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