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Land Use Board Okays Housing, Casino Projects

July 6, 2007 — Reliance Housing Foundation can proceed with plans to build affordable housing at Calabash Boom on St. John and Golden Gaming can continue with attempts to build a hotel and casino on St. Croix, thanks to unanimous decisions Friday by the Board of Land Use Appeals.
After about three hours of arguments by both sides, the board agreed to dismiss the suit by the ad hoc Friends of Coral Bay against the St. John Coastal Zone Management Committee for its Feb. 22 decision to give Reliance a modification to its CZM permit. The board agreed that it was within the CZM's purview to grant the permit.
"I'm shocked," Friends attorney Alan Smith said after the meeting. “I've never known the board to rule from the bench.”
According to law, the board must issue a written decision, he said. Smith said he would have to consult with the Friends before deciding the group’s next move.
CZM attorney Dalilia Patton, who argued the matter for the St. John CZM, said she felt vindicated by the decision. St. John CZM Chairwoman Madaline Sewer called the board's decision fair.
Staging work should start shortly at Calabash Boom on the project, said Reliance attorney Treston Moore. It includes 48 rental units and 34 units under a homeownership program. Both Moore and Clifford Graham, director of the V.I. Housing Finance Authority, spoke about what it has cost to defend against the Friends’ suit, though neither had any figures.
"But it's definitely taken away affordable-housing money from other clients," Graham said. While waiting for the Friends’ appeal to be heard, however, Reliance worked on finding ways to save money on the project, Moore said.
Reliance started work late last year, but quickly got slapped with a cease-and-desist order by the Planning and Natural Resources Department because it didn't have an Army Corp of Engineers permit, and did not submit a spill-contingency control plan or water- and air-quality certificates.
After upholding the cease-and-desist order at a Jan. 26 meeting, the committee agreed Feb. 22 to approve a modification to the original permit. The Friends soon filed with the Board of Land Use Appeals, which meant that work on the Calabash Boom project couldn't go forward until the appeal was heard.
Smith emphasized several times that the Friends were not opposed to affordable housing at Calabash Boom.
"The Friends do have concerns about the environmental impact of the project, and that's why we're here," Smith said.
While the Friends had issues all along with the project, the appeal was filed on the basis of the CZM modification, Smith said. His arguments centered on Reliance's plan to use well water, rain water and water trucked in to provide drinkable water for Calabash Boom residents. Reliance plans to blend those three types of water as needed.
"It's like mixing wine with vinegar,” Smith said. “You get vinegar.”
He also took exception to Reliance's plans to used treated sewage water to flush toilets. Use of such water is common, however, Moore said.
Reliance does not have a permit to use the well water, Smith said, but Moore later said it was premature for Reliance to apply for it.
It remains unknown whether the aquifer can supply the amount of water needed, Smith said. Additionally, he said, the well water would be too brackish for consumption. But Moore countered that the water would be filtered and treated with ultraviolet light to purify it.
Reliance opted to eliminate a reverse-osmosis plant in response to concerns that the intake and outfall pipes from the unit would harm the environment, Moore said.
"We want to be friends to Coral Bay, too," he said.
Smith also took exception to board Chairman Elton Chongasing's decision to allow Moore and Acting CZM Program Director Manny Ramos to speak at the meeting. But Moore said that they were supplying information already discussed at the CZM hearings on the matter.
This prompted board member John Woods to complain that some of the information from the hearing was not included in the package provided to board members.
"How can I make a decision if I don't know what's going on?" Woods asked.
In discussing Golden Gaming's request that its CZM permit be extended, Moore — who also represented Golden Gaming — said the company needs a valid CZM permit to give confidence to lenders. The permit expired May 25.
The board agreed that the permit would be extended for one year after an appeal filed by the V.I. Conservation Society is heard in U.S. District Court. Moore said he believes the appeal will be heard in the next 90 days.
"We keep doing everything in our power to move the appellate process," he said. It's probable that the matter will be heard in October when the Appeals Court hears cases on St. Croix, Moore said.
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