In a sometimes confusing and frequently heated meeting Tuesday night, the Senate Committee on Planning and Environmental Protection heard testimony on the Ritz-Carlton's Coastal Zone Management Committee's permit for expansion on the hotel property. The only thing agreed on by all parties was that another meeting will have to be held.
Committee chair Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg questioned the permit process, asking whether CZM had the authority to issue a permit including the sale of public land. He also questioned whether the Legislature acted legally in sending an amendment to the governor granting him the authority to negotiate a sale.
Yvonne Tharpes, legislative legal counsel, said the legislative body acted legally in this, but she questioned whether the CZM board acted beyond its authority in issuing the permit.
In question is a 550-foot strip of public roadway, estimated at costing about $37,000, which the hotel must use under its current plans to build a Ritz-Carlton Club adjacent to the hotel.
The roadway runs right through the proposed buildings. The strip of road was donated to the Virgin Islands by the late Henry Reichhold, largely because he didn't want to be held liable for any accidents incurred on the road leading to his Bluebeard's Beach Club, according to James Hindels, attorney for Ritz-Carlton. He added that the deed is not on public trust land, such as that in controversy in the Beal land swap.
Hindels started off the proceedings with a full explanation of the hotel's plans and intent, which he illustrated by maps and photos. He declared that there would still be beach access, and that this would not interfere with the public's using Great Bay, Muller or Vessup beaches.
But he said the CZM committee issued the permit with the full understanding that a public roadway existed on it. And this is where things got confusing.
Representing CZM were Director Janice Hodge and Julita DeLeon, CZM legal counsel. Both said they were unaware of the questionable roadway when they became involved in the permit process.
Asked by Donastorg whether CZM had authority to issue a permit including the sale of the roadway, they both answered no. They said they go on information the CZM staff presents to the committee. Because of a prior commitment, CZM chair Albert Paiewonsky was unable to attend the session.
The one thing all senators agreed on, aside from the need for another meeting, is that Ritz-Carlton, owned by Marriott Hotel Services, is a good corporate citizen and, with its approximate $78 million expansion, would give the island a much-needed economic boost.
Also testifying was Joe Hodge, Nazareth Bay property owner and contractor, who expressed concern that the expansion would cause more traffic on Cabrita Point road. However, Hodge was definitely in favor of the expansion.
Also testifying was Dayle Barry, president of the Environmental Association of St. Thomas-St. John. He said the EAST board has not taken an official position on the road transfer, noting the issue was not discussed at the CZM public hearing on the project.
He said EAST is already on record in support of the project as a "welcome investment into our frail economy." However, EAST has filed an appeal on the project because of "negative impacts which must be negated or mitigated."
He listed these as runoff rates, a marine baseline assessment, building heights and a lack of certification from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources Division of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.
Erva Denham, president of the League of Women Voters, and Collette Monroe attended the meeting, though they did not testify.
"The points that needed to be clarified were clarified," Denham said, "so we would be spinning our wheels." She also said that she had gone with CZM members, attorneys and hotel officials earlier this year and inspected the site.
She saw where the new beach-access roads would be, and even got a commitment from the hotel for two handicapped parking places.
Monroe and Denham noted that this project has been ongoing since Jan. 4 this year, and not one senator until lately had voiced any interest in it or come to see it.
Attending the meeting were Sens. Lorraine Berry, not a committee member, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Donald "Ducks" Cole, Roosevelt David and Allie-Allison Petrus.
Another meeting must be held after the governor reviews the permit application and the Senate amendment, and sends the amendment back to the Legislature.