When a backhoe began excavating on property abutting their backyards one Saturday morning in late September, residents of Estate Nazareth on the east end of St. Thomas became alarmed.
The area is a known habitat of the endangered Virgin Islands tree boa, as a nearby road sign warns motorists. The neighbors said they had no warning that the work was to take place, or what it was for.
However, an official with the Department of Planning and Natural Resources said on Friday that the backhoe work is part of an archaeological survey required of the developers of Latitude 18, the marina property that was damaged in hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 before they can move ahead with the permit application process.
“The archaeological surveys are part of the Environmental Assessment Report [EAR] that has to be submitted to the department for consideration. The surveys are commonly called a Phase 1 survey and are preliminary in nature. Should resources be found that are of significance a Phase 2 [more extensive survey] will have to be conducted,” said Marlon Hibbert, director of Coastal Zone Management for the territory, via email.
Neighbors expressed concern about the effect of the work on the land.
“This property is a known wetland that used to consist of several salt ponds and mangroves before it was filled in with Red Hook dredging materials about 50 years ago,” said a neighbor, who asked not to be identified, in an email to the Source. “Today, this property is a well-known habitat for the endangered tree boa, not to mention many other wildlife including white-tailed deer and land crabs. As the tree boa is nocturnal, it will probably not be trying to scurry away from the backhoe and its paths of destruction, and thus many of them may be killed.”
Hibbert said the State Historic Preservation Office oversees such work, and “the archaeologists, Cocosol, have done many such surveys in the territory and are familiar with the process. The Division of Fish and Wildlife will have oversight in the area as it relates to tree boas, there is a developed methodology overseen by the division in these cases.”
According to Fish and Wildlife tree boa rules posted on the DPNR website, a bush must first be hand cleared and the site left to sit idle for 14 days and then inspected for the snakes before any heavy equipment can be used if the project encompasses more than one acre.
Fish and Wildlife also conducts training sessions for workers, including how to identify a tree boa and what to do if one is encountered.
“If a snake is in imminent danger, the snake can be moved to undisturbed habitat outside the construction area that has been pre-approved by DFW,” according to the division’s web page.
According to the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, the harmless snakes have been residents since the islands formed some 20,000 years ago, making them one of the original inhabitants. Today, the tree boa is listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and “remains highly imperiled due to severe habitat destruction and fragmentation caused by intense development across its range.”
Lee Steiner is the founder and CEO of USVI Sotheby’s International Realty and represents the Latitude 18 developers, who he identified as Vessup Operation LLC. He said the rules were followed and the recent work “was not a danger to the tree boa.”
Additionally, he hosted a town hall meeting in October 2019 to share the Latitude 18 development plans with area residents and answer questions or concerns, Steiner said.
The project includes rebuilding the marina’s docks to hold about 46 boats and constructing three buildings housing a restaurant, retail space and a hotel or other residential space on the spot occupied by Latitude 18 and its parking lot, according to plans presented at the 2019 meeting. The land adjacent to the Eastwind Condominiums’ backyard up to Latitude 18’s current gate will become an enclosed building that could store 80 to 120 boats, depending on height restrictions, plus a marina office and public and private parking, said the concerned neighbor, who attended the town hall.
“The intent is to go through the CZM process … and be forthright with the information,” said Steiner. “It’s a lot more difficult than people think.”
Still, the backhoe work came as a shock to Latitude 18’s neighbors, who said they would like to have been notified, even if it’s not officially required.
“As neighbors, we are very concerned and upset. We would like the public to be aware and have any development process managed appropriately and with transparency,” said the resident who emailed the Source.
However, Hibbert said the development process is still in the earliest stages – a process Steiner said has been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant restrictions.
“Latitude 18 does not have development permission, they are undergoing the necessary studies required to actually apply for development permission,” Hibbert said.
“On May 5, Latitude 18 presented to the various divisions in DPNR their proposed plans for the area in a pre-application meeting. This pre-application meeting is a prerequisite for applicants prior to submitting a major CZM application and all divisions in DPNR have an opportunity to hear the proposal and express their concerns,” said Hibbert.
“Once an application has been formally received by the DPNR, a public process will then begin,” Hibbert said. “Once the application is deemed complete a public hearing will be held, the files will be available for review by the public in our offices and posted to our website.”
Those interested can learn more and view notices of upcoming public hearings on the DPNR website. The St. Thomas offices are in the Charles W. Turnbull Regional Library, 4607 Tutu Park Mall. On St. Croix, they are located at 45 Estate Mars Hill in Frederiksted. For information, including office hours during the COVID-19 pandemic, call 340-774-3320 on St. Thomas or 340-773-1082 on St. Croix.