More than 50 protesters against the planned Port of Mandahl development showed up at Mandahl Beach on St. Thomas on Tuesday to voice their concerns to senators being taken on a tour by project developers.
“Save Mandahl Bay! This belongs to us,” chanted the protesters including residents who live in or frequent Mandahl Bay, Taino Indians and various eco-conscious groups.
The group of senators, led by Sen. Janette Millin Young, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Agriculture and Planning, were scheduled to get a first-hand look at the site ahead of planned formal public hearings on the Mandahl development.
Millin Young assured protesters that the senators’ presence at the site alongside developers did not necessarily mean they were looking favorably at the project.
Plans for Port of Mandahl, a $480-million resort community project, were announced by former Gov. John deJongh Jr. on Nov. 6. The resort would have a 300-room hotel operated by Hyatt Regency, a convention center, a golf course and residences. It would also transform the old salt pond into a marina.
On Tuesday, legislators got to view renderings of the proposed hotel complex and 50-slip marina. George Dudley, a partner at Dudley, Topper and Feuerzeig, addressed some of the concerns raised by residents opposed to the project.
According to Dudley, the dredging planned for the old salt pond in order to accommodate the marina will not impact the mangroves as many environmental protesters fear. The dredging will occur in the middle of the pond, he said, leaving the outer ring of mangroves untouched.
The sand deposited on the stony Mandahl shore to create a “perched” beach will also not touch the coral located farther offshore, said Dudley.
“There is no threat to disturbing the environment. We wouldn’t get approval if there’s anything in our proposal that threatens the environment,” said Karl Blaha, president of Mandahl Bay Holdings, the developer company.
But Karl Callwood of Friends of Mandahl, an organization fighting the project, said it’s impossible for the project not to impact the Mandahl ecosystem. Callwood has been campaigning against the plans since their announcement and has been one of the drivers of the “Save Mandahl Bay” movement.
“There’s no way you can put down a building without diverting water flow … have that large-scale boating activity and even swimming and recreation activity without disturbing the processes that create life within the Mandahl ecosystem,” Callwood said.
Lifelong St. Thomas resident Chrys Petersen said Mandahl Bay was deeded to the people of the Virgin Islands, not for commercial development. According to Petersen, who said her grandmother used to get salt from the old Mandahl salt pond, it’s important to preserve the area according to its originally intended use.
“It was deeded to us with the stipulation that we use it for educational purposes, for cultural purposes, and we do in fact use this area,” she said.
As for the prospect of jobs out of the development, Petersen said, “I don’t believe one word of that. Every developer that comes in here, it’s ‘jobs, jobs, jobs.’ I’m not buying it.”
Dudley said that the development’s projected 1,500 new jobs – 300 contractual and 1,200 full-time – would spur economic activity.
Since archaeological artifacts and even old human bones have been found in the vicinity of the planned project site, Maekiaphan Phillips, an Opi’a Taino, said allowing a major resort development in the Mandahl area takes away from the opportunity of the indigenous community to investigate what history is there.
“I feel we need to step back and reevaluate before we go forward,” said Phillips. “Stop long enough to find out the true identity of bones found in the area.”
Present at Tuesday’s event were Sens. Justin Harrigan Sr., Clifford Graham, Nereida “Nellie” Rivera-O’Reilly, Terrence “Positive” Nelson, Jean Forde and Almando Liburd.
The Senate hearings are just the beginning of a series of approvals that the developers need to go through. Blaha said he expects the entire approvals process to take a year.