Senators appeared torn Wednesday about Lionel Warrell’s request to rezone a parcel on St. Thomas’ Estate Elizabeth for a dining, retail and scenic overlook, supporting his tenacity but troubled by his environmental violations, evasive answers and opposition from neighbors.
The Committee of the Whole met to take testimony on several rezoning applications, including Warrell’s. No votes were taken, and no action will be taken unless senators choose to sponsor legislation codifying the rezonings, for the next legislative session, which Senate President Neville James said will occur in December.
Warrell asked to amend Parcel Remainder 20, Estate Elizabeth, No 8i Great Northside Quarter, St. Thomas, from R-2 residential, low density, one and two family, to B-3, business-scattered. The 1.251 acre plot is undeveloped but has a storage container on it. Warrell intends to develop a scenic lookout with food and retail sales. It is surrounded by residential property on all sides, and to the east is the pre-existing, non-conforming Mafolie Hotel and Restaurant.
Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dawn Henry said DPNR and its Coastal Zone Management Division opposed the rezoning. Henry spoke on behalf of DPNR’s Division of Coastal Zone Management, saying that division head, Leia LaPlace, could not attend because she was an expecting mother and her doctor had forbidden her to fly.
Henry said when DPNR held public hearings in April on the application, three attendees testified in support, none of whom lived near the property. But 11 adjacent residents testified against it, saying they were concerned it would reduced the quality of life, worsen traffic and cause other problems, she said.
DPNR recommends against the rezoning because of the pattern of use around the property, that the "property is essentially a gut," and the overwhelming opposition of neighbors. She said the owners had also illegally modified the property, causing damaging drainage problems.
"The property is an actively flowing gut and development would be difficult," Henry said. "It would affect the neighbors and they are concerned about the cost and the ability of the owner to complete the project.”
Later, Henry said DPNR had issued notices of violation against Warrell for damaging the gut, and Warrell had entered into an agreement to mitigate the damage back in 2008, but had not done any of the required mitigation.
When asked how he could build in a gut, when building in a gut is prohibited by law, Warrell pointed to his mitigation agreement, asserting it authorized him to build there.
James asked Henry about the 2008 gut modification report, which Henry herself had signed, long before her appointment to head DPNR.
"You signed off on a gut mitigation and that has nothing to do with building in the gut?" James asked.
"That is correct," Henry said.
In defense of the change, Warrell cited his military service and being a native Virgin Islander. He also said it would add jobs and create a venue for activities such as weddings.
Warrell denied any violation of code or law and denied damaging the gut. Asked about his signed agreement with DPNR to mitigate the damage he had done, Warrell said he signed it only to move forward and not delay development further.
Herman Lloyd, a personal friend of Warrell’s, said he came to support his "friend and colleague," and said Virgin Islanders can "build in any terrain," if the engineering is planned properly.
Another friend, Louise O. Petersen, said Warrell was a good person and "if given the opportunity," would prove himself and that the project "will in every way enhance the community and surrounding areas."
Avery Lewis said he was there "to support my brother," and "I feel we must support each other, that is number one."
Several neighbors testified against the change.
Enrique Rodriguez came representing several family members and himself who are adjacent property owners.
"When we met our new neighbor Mr. Warrell… we were quite happy that he was a fireman and first responder," Rodriguez said.
According to Rodriguez, Warrell told them he was going to build his family home, and started to move earth and trees very close to a major gut running through the property, without an earth change permit.
Although the property is zoned residential, "somehow he was able to open up a bar and serve alcohol with a license given to him by DLCA," Rodriguez said. The license was later revoked due to the zoning violation, he said.
Rodriguez also said Warrell erected a fence across the public road and around an adjacent government-owned property, barricading the Rodriguez property. Warrell acknowledged he had done so, but said he was told by police officials he had a right to, once he starts building his planned business. He also said the road was on his property.
Many senators said they wanted to support Warrell and admired him for what Sen. Myron Jackson termed his "staying power," in pursuing a dream since 2008, and in lobbying senators vigorously. But most of those present said they were also concerned about the difficulty of building in the gut and Warrell’s unresolved code violations.
"The truth of the matter is the law is clear, that no one can build in a gut," Sen. Clifford Graham said. "DPNR cannot even waive the law … You can go in and improve a gut but you cannot build in a gut.”
"I like what you are trying to do. But you have to follow some rules and regs. … If you can’t get a rezoning, how are you going to build?" Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd said. "The gentleman has a good concept but he needs some real engineering help," Liburd added, suggesting that a more thoroughly worked out plan that addressed environmental and legal concerns about the gut might stand a better chance.
A few senators, including Sens. Marvin Blyden and Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, seemed to support Warrell’s proposed change.
Blyden said the project "will add value to the area."
Rivera-O’Reilly suggested race played a role in the opposition to the project.
"I wonder if Mr. Warrell was a multimillionaire, if the question about whether or not he can afford to build this lookout, and — and all of the other amenities that he desires to build, whether we would be questioning that in the manner in which we are tonight," Rivera-O’Reilly said.
"If he came in here with a checkbook that he could write $10 million and just go build it and create lots of jobs, you probably wouldn’t have all of the opposition you have. Then again perhaps if the color of your skin was different we wouldn’t have the opposition you have. And that’s the reality. It may make us feel uncomfortable. But to a great extent, what I see displayed here and what I saw displayed in the hearings before, tells that story," she said.
Senators also heard testimony on Sergio Laplante’s rezoning request to allow a stationary food van, bar and video lottery operation in Estate Thomas. Laplante is asking to change lot Nos. 52 and 54 First Avenue (combined), First Subdivision of Estate Thomas, St. Thomas the Official Zoning Map No. STZ-11 from R-4 (Residential Medium Density) to B-2 (Business-Secondary/Neighborhood). Henry said DPNR recommended against approval.
“The residential character of the area being negatively impacted by increased traffic, the operation of an eating establishment, bar, video lottery terminal is a concern for neighbors,” Henry said.
Dr. Wilbur Callender, whose business office adjoins the property, also testified in opposition, saying Laplante had poured concrete and installed pipes two-feet into his property, and that he objected to both video lottery terminals and food vans in general.
Laplante’s representative Louise Jennings said the plans had been reduced.
“We’ve made significant changes to the zoning request which includes removing the video lottery terminals and the bar,” she said, adding “we are only interested in setting up a stationary food van.”
“When did you change your mind about removing VLT’s and the bar from your zoning request?” Sen. Janette Millin Young asked.
Laplante said the decision was made Tuesday, the day before the hearing. Young asked when DPNR first notified Laplante it was recommending against approval.
“May 21st,” Henry replied.
“I have a problem with Laplante’s sudden decision that was made yesterday,” Young said. “The food van will change the overall atmosphere of the surrounding community and that should be examined a lot closer.”
Rivera-O’Reilly said the requested zoning gives 197 uses by right and asked Henry if Laplante could change his intended purpose after getting the rezoning.
“Yes, DPNR regularly experiences applicants who change their original use of the property. Once the zoning request is granted, the applicant can do any of the 197 uses that is allowed in that particular zone," Henry said.
Sen. Jean Forde asked, “For the record, you have no interest in having a bar and VLT’s on the property?” Laplante said, “No, I do not. However, the food van will be beneficial to the community.”
The committee also heard the request of Winsor and Juel Daniels to rezone parcel No. 5-2 Estate Raphune, No. 5BA New Quarter, St. Thomas from R-2 (Residential-Low Density-One and Two Family) to B-2 (Business-Secondary Neighborhood). The Daniels want to bring the pre-existing business building on the property into zoning conformity. Henry said DPNR supports the change, which she said would have no practical impact on the area. She also said the Legislature tried to rezone the property many years ago, but a typographical error instead rezoned the neighboring plot, which is the Daniels’ residence.