May 29, 2007 — Recently publicized plans to subject Great St. James Island to extensive commercial development should arouse the ire of every Virgin Islander, black and white, rich and poor, sailor and landsman, and also the ire of every tourist who has ever marveled at the territory's pristine beauty.
No other island in the V.I. epitomizes so well the beauty, history and human drama of the territory, as has been pointed out time and again by residents. And yet today Great St. James is faced with the prospect of slow extinction by bulldozers, dynamite, deforestation, pollution and wholesale mutilation. (See "Environmental and Historic-Preservation Concerns Surround Proposed Great St. James Island Development.") Community leaders and associations have recently raised their voices in protest against this proposed rape of still another Virgin Islands treasure. (See "Residents Gather to Address Potential 'Tragedy' on Great St. James.") But there is a prior question that no one thus far seems to have addressed.
Aside from the impact on the environment, is the development project itself feasible? Are there conditions on the island that could thwart or undermine development and cause the project to founder, such as cost overruns that bankrupt the developer? And will there be hazards or annoyances that will discourage or drive away future guests, buyers or lessees of the 53 dwellings? The island is still virtually in a primeval state and therefore highly resistant to development and the conduct of conventional lifestyles. In other words, will the island prove to be intractable when confronted with the kind of development that is planned? And will the unanticipated problems encountered during construction increase the dangers of environmental damage, dangers that might well become apparent only too late to be dealt with? If so, the cost to the territory would be horrendous and monumentally shameful.
No one is better qualified to illuminate the problems of construction and residence on Great St. James than I am. My wife and I lived in a cabin on the island for 30 years, served as caretakers for both the previous owner and the current one and built the current owner's $700,000 estate. And I have some unpleasant news for prospective buyers, construction personnel and residents. In my opinion, the island is utterly unsuitable for 53 upscale units, and only marginally suitable for cabin dwellers.
I am familiar with almost every square foot of Great St. James — especially the northern half, where the only true beach, the owner's estate and the plantation are located. For years I explored the island's nooks and crannies, and eventually I created a nature park with beautiful walks acclaimed by a naturalist from the States as superior to the national park on St. John. My wife and I patched the catchment and cistern at the plantation, grew citrus and banana trees there and cut trails through the ruins for viewing. And I discovered a quarter-mile-long catchment that has escaped the attention of everyone else, as well as other remnants of early development. I even brought two archaeologists and a West Indian historian to the island for consultation, and interviewed an elderly gentlemen who had lived on the island before World War I.
When the new owner appeared on the scene, I was given the responsibility of dividing the island into three equally desirable parts for the three members of the owner's family who had inherited it. I then took charge of building the estate and maintaining it for many years with the indispensable help of my wife, who handled the laborers, supply logistics and construction and maintenance of the tennis court.
"The Island's Beauty is Extremely Fragile"
I installed the solar-electrical system referred to so glowingly in the recent public meeting ("We don't have to wait until tomorrow — we're using it now"). I struggled with termites, hurricanes and water shortages. I supervised the construction of seven cisterns, both below and above ground. I planted and arduously maintained the palm trees on the beach, citrus orchard and ornamentals on the terraces that I had designed around the main house. I laid out and supervised construction of the winding dirt road that went over the highest hill on the island and descended to Christmas Cove, now probably completely overgrown. I designed, built and maintained the dock (the only one in the East End of St. Thomas to survive Hurricane Marilyn) and the servants' quarters uphill. I took care of the owner's boats and tended to their repairs. I bought, barged over and supervised earth-moving equipment. And on and on. And I handled all the financial and legal affairs related to construction and daily maintenance of the estate, and, of course, kept precise records of all financial transactions for the owner's perusal. And as a result of all these tasks and living on the island for 30 years, I learned many lessons — mostly the hard way. Here are just a few of them.
The island's beauty is extremely fragile. I myself inadvertently destroyed two large, beautiful mampoo trees by just putting a nail into them. And watering, cultivation, pruning and spraying of plants should not be ignored for more than a day or two. Thus a half-time landscaper is essential for even a single, medium-sized dwelling, suggesting the need for a landscaping staff of about 15 full-time people on the island.
The cost of boat maintenance and repair and the barging of water and fuel are particularly high, a cost that often escapes the attention of developers. And then there is the transport of guests or tenants. Years ago Caneel Bay Plantation was dismayed to discover that operating a small ferryboat was one of the major reasons it could not make a profit. And it is doubtful that a ferryboat to Great St. James can be accommodated in the small, shallow slip in Red Hook that belongs to the owner of the island. I was in charge of the dock, with the help of a daily maintenance and security man, and am well aware of its limitations and the fact that it needs frequent attention. I am also well aware that only a few cars are allowed by law to park in the yard at Red Hook. Where will the island's 53 residents put their cars? Further, how will residents travel back and forth to the island when the ferryboat is being hauled and repaired?
Hurricanes can be absolutely devastating to buildings and property on Great St. James because of the island's naked exposure to the ocean and prevailing winds, which could drive insurance costs sky high. Before I took charge on Great St. James, a large, sturdy dock was built on Christmas Cove amid great public furor. But I wasn't concerned because I knew exactly what would happen, and it did. Within a year a hurricane obliterated it. (I understand that another dock on Christmas Cove has been recently proposed. Some people never learn. Also, a dock there would destroy the peaceful ambiance of this famous anchorage.) But allowing the dock on Brandy Cove to remain is also a bad idea because of the impact of boat traffic on the reef, fish, turtles, turtle grass, swimmers (and especially snorkelers who can barely be seen and whom I've almost hit several times) and so on. The only protection on land against hurricanes, and also against the tropical sun, are trees, and lots of them. What will happen when they are cut down to make room for house sites and roads? The owner of Little St. James greatly envied us because of our trees. Are we now going to make Great St. James look like her almost barren island next door?
The terrain of the island has only an average of one inch of topsoil, while the rest is rock (often huge boulders) and clay, making excavation extremely difficult and expensive. On the adjacent island of Little St. James, dynamite was used for construction of j
ust a small cluster of buildings. Because of these terrain conditions the U.S. Geological Survey concluded years ago that Great St. James was unsuitable for development, agriculture, grazing or any other use except nature trails. Was this mentioned in the environmental-assessment report submitted to CZM? I think not. Finally, the slopes on the island often reach at least 45 degrees, which poses formidable construction hurdles.
The only large trees behind the northern beach are manchineels, which are deadly poisonous. Just nibbling their apples can be fatal (except apparently to hermit crabs). But cutting them down would destroy essential protection from hurricane winds. And the trees themselves are beautiful. Could they simply be posted as dangerous?
Elaborate, Costly Maintenance
Exposure to constant ocean breezes has a severely corrosive effect on machinery, appliances, electronics, pianos or metal-structural material. One should expect refrigerators to become pockmarked with rust, for example, and machinery to break down repeatedly. The latter was also a recurrent problem on Little St. James, as related to me by the caretaker there.
The planned solar power systems for the individual units are an attractive alternative to an underwater cable. But each of the 53 installations — costing thousands of dollars for photo-voltaic panels, inverter, generator and batteries — will need recurrent care, including checking of water levels, monitoring of voltage, monthly equalizing for five hours of an array of expensive deep-cycle batteries by means of a noisy generator and replacement of all the batteries every four or five years. If each of 53 homes will have its own equipment, then 53 generators for equalizing the batteries will be required, which could create a lovely chorus of noise reminiscent of the months after Hurricane Marilyn. And how will gasoline or diesel fuel be supplied and stored for each unit?
Moreover, residents will probably need to forgo air conditioners, microwave ovens, hair dryers and clothes dryers, and refrigerators and stoves will need to run on propane gas. And how will this extremely volatile gas be obtained, transported and safeguarded? Water heaters will need to be solar at a cost of about $2000 per unit. Finally, at least four full-time electricians will be needed on the island to keep so many solar electrical systems operating efficiently. As for wind generation, the towers require four- to six-foot deep solid-concrete foundations and would still be subject to destruction by hurricanes, or so I have read. This was the reason that I did not install them.
As for all the dauntless critters of the West Indies, termites are unpredictable and ravenous: My wife once opened a kitchen cabinet in the owner's house and found a nest of thousands. Over the years hundreds of pages in many books were devoured without my realizing it. Chemical extermination is impossible at best and harmful to human health at worst. Moreover, all lumber for construction must be pressure treated with a preservative, which raises the cost substantially. And the sand flies ("no-see-um's") bite every evening and morning, requiring the frequent use of insect repellents, to which some people are allergic. Further, several times a year swarms of buzzing mosquitoes become so thick for about five days that one cannot go outside or, if one does go outside, cannot open one's mouth without swallowing insects. Moreover, deer will eat anything planted or watered and especially fruit buds, hibiscus and vegetables, but they are protected by local law. Rats are ubiquitous and constantly trying to get into the house, and they are very often successful. (They even eat through window screens.) And, of course, there are the usual scorpions and tarantula-like ground spiders that occasionally turn up in one's bed or shoe.
Long-term droughts are common because the island is located in the dry part of the territory — unlike, for example, St. John and the north side of St. Thomas. Thus the cisterns planned for the 53 units will need to be very large and replenished by barges bringing water trucks to the island during droughts. But how are these cumbersome trucks going to climb the grassy roads planned by the developers? And how is the grass going to be watered between rainfalls in the first place, a possible period of three months in the tropical sun? The adjacent island of Little St. James used about 3,000 gallons of water a day (obtained by reverse osmosis) on only roughly a quarter acre of grass and other plants. And there is virtually no topsoil on the hilltops and ridges of Great St. James for planting grass or anything else. If you try to plant even a small bush, your shovel will reverberate with a clang. Better to use a sledgehammer. And by the way, the cisterns will be difficult to bury in the rocky soil, requiring heavy earth-moving equipment or even dynamite. And how does a backhoe move along a steep hillside without digging terraces for access to the work site? It can be done, but at great expense, damage to the earth and danger to the operators. And there is no hospital on Great St. James.
Isolation, Exhaust Fumes and Mosquitoes
Crime, which is very high in the territory, will undoubtedly spill over to the island when it becomes commonly known that many affluent residents live in isolated dwellings that are easily accessible from shore (which is public). In fact, my wife and I, who were very far from being affluent, were burglarized three times. And there is no police department or even fire station on the island. A young camper on the beach at night once sent a mock SOS signal out to sea by flashlight, and it took the Coast Guard five hours to arrive. As for fire, where will the water come from to douse a conflagration of guinea grass covering more than a hundred acres during annual droughts? And what madman would insure an exposed house in this tinder-box environment?
Ferryboats to St. John and the British Virgin Islands pass next to the island several times a day and make an unholy racket, with exhaust fumes wafting across the water onto shore. And any residents on the west side overlooking Christmas Cove will be subjected to the chatter, radios and maintenance sounds of the boat people anchored below them all day and night.
And then there is the sweet, putrid smell of the four ponds on the island when they are dry and the breeding of mosquitoes when they are wet. (These ponds are designated "areas of special concern," and for good reason.) Finally, any prospective buyer should weigh the possibility that Virgin Islanders will greet with resentment and animosity this latest rape of their birthright where they once fished, snorkeled, anchored, strolled, sunbathed, picnicked, camped and partied. Is it wise to invest millions in a business that runs the risk of being execrated by the local public?
Beautiful, But Harsh and Demanding
For all its drawbacks, my wife and I loved the island and still do. But we were young at heart, in robust health, resilient and resourceful, lived with few amenities and kept a low profile. And I had chosen the most desirable location nestled in the woods for protection from hurricanes and intruders. Also, I welcomed the challenge of overcoming the hazards and annoyances of my homestead as my Texan ancestors had done. But best of all, I had a devoted wife who made any hardship endurable. I am skeptical, however, that well-to-do residents or visitors would be willing to live like hardy pioneers and homesteaders in a primordial tropical wilderness.
It is impossible to exaggerate the cost of maintaining the island as a livable habitat in terms of modern standards. The current owner, a very wealthy European who used to have a private jet plane and three luxurious homes in his native country, was constantly complaining to me about expenses, in spite of our demonstrably saving him vast sums of money. (His attorney assured me that I had saved him almost a million dollars.) And it is no doubt the owner's anxiety about expense that is the
principal reason why he is trying to sell the island and why seven years ago he turned his estate into a small hotel, which prompted me to move away. It is my understanding that this was also the reason that Little St. James was sold. According to a report in Islands Magazine, the maintenance of small private islands almost always incurs costs far in excess of original estimates because of the naivete of buyers and developers when seduced by the bliss of an exotic island. But after the first few days of each visit to the island, the owner of Great St. James (who never lived on the island) and his family and guests usually escaped the living conditions on the island by taking refuge in a luxury resort on St. Thomas. Is there a lesson here?
In sum, the large development project planned for Great St. James might prove to be over the heads of the owner and developer, and ultimately unattractive to residents. But this could escape acknowledgment or detection until a great deal of damage has been done. The Coastal Zone Management Commissioners of the VI should be scrupulously aware of this possibility before the chainsaws, bulldozers and dynamite caps go to work, because they alone will be held responsible. And I have no doubt that if construction ever commences, the island will fight back with stupefying ferocity.
Sam Sieber, Ph.D.
Editor's note: Sam Sieber is a former caretaker and builder on Great St. James Island.
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