Oct. 10, 2003 – An appeal by the Save Long Bay Coalition of a Board of Land Use Appeals ruling upholding the legality of a permit for a portion of the planned Yacht Haven redevelopment was dismissed on a technicality on Friday by Territorial Court Judge Rhys Hodge.
The coalition has 30 days in which to appeal Hodge's ruling, SLBC attorney Judith Bourne said, and it plans to do so.
Elie Finegold, executive vice president of the stateside firm Insignia Nautica and spokesman for its local subsidiary, IN-USVI, said immediately after the court decision Friday that he was pleased with the judge's decision. However, he said, construction work on the Long Bay redevelopment project will remain on hold until he sees whether the coalition will pursue its appeal.
Hodge said in a court document dated Sept. 29 that SLBC's petition for a Writ of Review was "in compliance." However, IN-USVI then filed a motion to dismiss the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, saying the coalition's petition lacked a Certification of Attorney, a document which must accompany a Writ of Review. Hodge ruled in favor of that motion on Friday.
Helen Gjessing, SLBC president, said later on Friday that "we fully intend to go on with the appeal." She said she was "very disappointed" by Hodge's ruling.
The battle between the coalition and IN-USVI over Long Bay dates from June, when Gjessing said the coalition was contemplating challenging the development project's Coastal Zone Management permit. Legislative and administrative aspects of IN-USVI's leasing of submerged land in the bay and filled land owned by The West Indian Co. and then securing CZM approval for its redevelopment plans have been fraught with controversy. (See "Senate approves submerged land lease".)
The objection taken by the coalition before the Board of Land Use Appeals was of the issuance of a single CZM permit for both the existing hotel property and the filled land. The coalition argued that a separate permit, one requiring additional approvals, was needed for the landfill because it is public trust land.
WICO has leased the filled land, created when the St. Thomas harbor was dredged in 1986, to IN-USVI for up to 90 years. WICO is a private corporation wholly owned by the Public Finance Authority, which was created in the 1990s as a semi-autonomous agency primarily to raise public revenues through the issuance of government-backed bonds.
IN-USVI contends that the filled land is privately owned, citing a 1989 Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding a District Court ruling to that effect in a case brought by the coalition in 1987 relating to the harbor dredging. However, coalition members note, WICO was owned by Danish interests at that time; in 1993 it was purchased by the V.I. government.
One thing all stakeholders — including the SLBC — have in common is the desire to see the existing Yacht Haven Hotel and Marina buildings demolished. The derelict structures, badly damaged by Hurricane Marilyn eight years ago and never rebuilt, are the first sight thousands of visitors see nearly every day upon disembarking from their cruise ships to stroll or travel by taxi to downtown Charlotte Amalie.
Coalition members have repeatedly said they are not against the redevelopment of the hotel and marina complex; they oppose only the commercial development portion of the overall project, planned for the adjacent landfill. They say the planned shopping and office complex could hurt Main Street businesses, or could itself end up under-used or derelict.
The Board of Land Use Appeals voted unanimously on July 29 to reject the coalition's challenge of the St. Thomas Coastal Zone Management Committee's approval of a single CZM permit covering the hotel property and the adjacent seven acres of filled land. The SLBC appealed the board's decision to Territorial Court on Sept 23. (See "Group takes Long Bay CZM permit fight to court".)
The coalition says the government should not be allowed to avoid its fiduciary obligations by its assignment of WICO stock to the Public Finance Authority, "a component of the government," or by WICO's retention of legal title to the landfill.
On Friday, attorney Maria Tankenson Hodge, representing IN-USVI, said in arguing for dismissal of the court case for lack of the Certification of Attorney that lawyers "must comply with the rules, or they mean nothing." She asked the court to maintain the "integrity of court rules."
SLBC attorney Terri Griffiths told the court that the coalition "only objects to the commercial and retail development." She said: "It's just a small parcel of land we want for the V.I. residents."
William Grole, another IN-USVI attorney, responded: "That one 'tiny space' makes the project economically feasible." Without the commercial space, he said, the entire project "all falls down." (See "IN-USVI accuses coalition of 'frivolous appeal.'".)
Finegold agreed, saying that "the parcel they refer to is a significant percent of the project development, and the permitting process in the Virgin Islands is very expensive." After the court ruling and before learning of the coalition's decision to pursue the appeal, he said: "It was a very well-argued decision. I sincerely hope this will be the end of it."
Finegold reiterated what he has said since July — that IN-USVI will not proceed with any part of the redevelopment project as long as any appeals are looming on the horizon. "We have expected the V.I. courts to be as thoughtful as they have always been," he said. "We know on two previous occasions they (SLBC) waited until the 11th hour. We want to know what they will do."
He added, referring to his company's planned demolition of the hotel structures and the overall redevelopment project: "I hope we can begin soon."
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