Updated: See Below
Judith’s Fancy residents and the V.I. Conservation Society pushed Thursday against National Park Service plans for a marine research center at Salt River on St. Croix, saying it might threaten that area’s bioluminescent bay.
The testimony came at a V.I. Legislature oversight hearing at the Frits E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room on St. Croix.
NPS and V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources officials countered that environmental impact studies did not show a likelihood of harm to the Mangrove Lagoon bioluminescent bay and the small-scale development would help preserve the area, which includes the historic sight of Christopher Columbus’ 1493 landing and ancient archeological findings.
The original plans for the proposed marine research and education center called for the facility to occupy eight acres of Hemer’s Peninsula. It would include 12 lab modules and housing for 48 college students.
Initial funding has come from the federal government, and ongoing funding would have to come from a consortium of the University of the Virgin Islands and other universities doing research.
Margaret Boller, president of Eclipse Promotions, a New Jersey promotional firm, and founder of the Save Salt River Bay Coalition, testified vehemently against the project, saying the NPS did not do enough to look for alternative sites and that any development near the location would be ill advised.
"We feel that the concept of building on public land and water is a gross misinterpretation of the National Park mission to encourage learning, education and stewardship of the park," Boller testified to the Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection," Thursday.
During an extensive PowerPoint presentation, Boller went further and said they believe the local NPS behaves "as if they are above the law and bend the rules to suit their purposes."
She presented the committee with a petition against the plans, signed by 910 individuals. Of those signatories, 214 listed U.S. Virgin Islands addresses.
National Park Service Superintendent Joel Tutein disputed Boller’s assertions that the legal process was not followed, pointing to the public hearings that were held and permits acquired for the work.
Several organizations, including the V.I. Conservation Society, also appeared in opposition to the long-planned project.
Jill Updyke of Virgin Kayak testified against the development, arguing that any development of any kind near the bioluminescent bay could harm it, cause it to dim and hurt what is a growing tourist attraction for St. Croix. Mark Martin Bras with the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust testified that Vieques is taking great pains to protect its bioluminescent bay and urged St. Croix to do so too.
"I believe that your project is a great opportunity for research and education, I simply have learned through experience that we should not construct or dredge around bioluminescent bays," Bras said.
"Let us learn from the mistakes of bioluminescent bays like the Bahamas and Jamaica and make a model of your very special bioluminescent bay. You have an incredible opportunity to be a part of the history of bioluminescent bays by choosing a restructuring of the plan and include the bioluminescent bay in the plan and doing what is best for the Bio-bay. Let it shine, naturally," he said.
In contrast, Tutein testified that the plans were rigorously vetted both by DPNR and by the NPS.
Also, he said plans had been changed to lessen any potential impact, saying that relocating a planned dock outside the mouth of the man-made bay that is now bioluminescent "should serve to minimize possible impacts that small boat operations might have on the phytoplankton in the Bay."
He said questions had been raised about the impact of dredging, but no dredging is planned for inside the bay, but some "maintenance dredging" may be required on the seaward side of the peninsula enclosing the bay.
Several senators expressed concern about any potential damage to the bioluminescent bay at Mangrove Lagoon.
"Why would we even attempt to damage a site when the research is not in to say what causes damage?" said Sen. Kurt Vialet.
Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson said he and other senators agree with the residents of Judith’s Fancy and opposed construction near the glowing lagoon
"We support an educational center but not on that side of the bay," Nelson said.
Chairing the meeting, Sen. Sammuel Sanes said the committee would meet again "in the very near, near future," and discuss the issue more.
"We are going to accomplish something here and we are going to work on this together," Sanes said. "We are going to continue to dialogue and continue to work on a solution for the people of the Virgin Islands."
Near the end of the hearing, Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson moved that the committee send a letter to V.I. Delegate Stacey Plaskett urging a halt to the NPS project. The motion was amended to also ask Plaskett to convene a meeting with NPS officials to discuss the Legislature’s concerns. The motion passed with Nelson, Vialet, Sanes and Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd voting yes. Sens. Marvin Blyden, Janette Millin Young and Clifford Graham were absent.
Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to reflect that the committee moved to send a letter to V.I. Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett.