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SENATOR CITES OPINION AGAINST RITZ CLOSING ROAD

The Legislature's legal counsel appears to have put up a roadblock to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel's $75 million expansion plans, according to a release from Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, a vocal opponent of the resort's plan to acquire a section of what is known as the Bluebeard's Beach Road and close it to traffic.
A 37-page document issued in response to a request from Donastorg for a legal opinion concluded it would be illegal to close the public road running through the property to be developed, and also illegal for the government to sell or even give the section of road to the hotel, according to the release distributed to the media Friday.
Plans by the hotel to acquire and close the road have long been in dispute.
At a Senate hearing last Dec. 21, Coastal Zone Management Committee members, Environmental Association of St. Thomas-St. John members and Ritz-Carlton attorney James Hindels debated the legality of the CZM permit issued to the hotel for the project. There is no mention of closing the road in the permit application, and CZM board members said at the meeting that they had received no information about the road, or of Ritz plans to close it.
Also under debate is whether the governor can dispose of the land, since it is held in public trust.
"The road was dedicated to the public in 1965 by Henry H. Reichhold," Donastorg's release stated.
In the recent Beal Aerospace case on St. Croix, a Territorial Court judge ruled that the government could not sell the property commonly known as Camp Arawak that had been deeded to the people of the Virgin Islands by a private donor.
However, Ritz-Carlton attorney James Hindels, in a letter responding to Donastorg's press release, faulted the senator for failing to note that assistant legislative counsel Yvonne Tharpes stated in her legal opinion that "the portion of road which the hotel needs in order to expand the hotel can properly be abandoned."
Donastorg said in his release that the opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel supports his view that a public road cannot be sold to a private party. However, he said, according to the legal opinion, the hotel can proceed with its expansion plans without closing the road.
His release stated that "Bluebeard's Beach Road provides access to Bluebeard's and Vessup beaches as well as to homes on Cabrita Point."
Hindels countered that the 550-foot stretch of road "lies wholly within the Ritz-Carlton property and provides access to no one's home." Further, the attorney said, beach access with parking "within a few feet of the southerly side of Bluebeard's Beach" has existed since the hotel was built nearly a decade ago. In addition, he said, the hotel has already provided for an additional public access on the north side of the beach.
The section of road to be closed "ends some 200 feet from the beach at the front door of the old Bluebeard's Beach Club Hotel's reception area, now in ruins," Hindels wrote. "From there, a person would have to cross over the wreckage of the old hotel to reach the water."
In a late-night session on Dec.15, the Legislature authorized the governor to give or sell the land to the hotel. Donastorg adamantly opposed the move, stating that "no maps, permits or other pertinent documents were supplied to review the measure."
The next day, Planning and Natural Resources Department officials said that the Ritz Carlton's CZM permit did not grant the hotel permission to build on or use the public road.
At the Dec. 21 hearing, called to review the Dec. 15 action, Hindels made a presentation of the hotel plans with maps and photos. He said that there would still be beach access and that the development would not interfere with public use of Great Bay or the Muller or Vessup Bay beaches. The expansion would help the economy, he said, a point no senator challenged.
The Ritz-Carlton permit application states that 76 percent of the 27.2 acres to be developed will be maintained as "usable open space."
Donastorg said he hopes a way will be found "for Ritz to build without closing this road. Otherwise, they may be forced into a frustrating and protracted court battle."

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