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Senate Committee Fails to Vote on Thatch Cay Development

March 11, 2009 — Banging the gavel a little after midnight Thursday, Sen. Alvin L. Williams announced that after six hours of debate, senators would continue discussion and possibly vote on an application for the development of Thatch Cay at another hearing scheduled for later in the month.
The meeting kicked off around 6 p.m. Wednesday, with community members — many of whom have long spoken out against the proposed development — packing the legislative chambers on St. Thomas. Williams, head of the Senate's Planning and Environmental Protection Committee, said later that he didn't want to rush the vote on the application, but instead give residents and senators who were not able to make it to the hearing another chance to testify and ask questions on March 27.
The project includes the construction of land subdivisions, residential housing flats, utilities, wastewater-treatment plants, two swimming pools and related infrastructure.
Throughout the evening, arguments for and against the development were clearly outlined, with a majority of the debate focusing on potential negative impacts on what was described as a "pristine" and "untouched" cay, including the killing off of surrounding marine and wildlife. Given the current economic recession, there's no guarantee that the project would even make it to the end, some said.
"If this project goes forward as proposed, St. Thomas might well be left with a partially completed eyesore and a greatly degraded marine environment," said Helen Gjessing, chairwoman of the League of Women Voters' Planning and Environmental Quality Committee.
Many senators echoed the sentiments, urging members of the committee to reject the application and replace it with a proposal for planned, and not spot, development.
"Let us make this the foundation of a land- and water-use plan," said Sen. Louis P. Hill. "As elected leaders, let's not wait for somebody else to make the decision for us — let's be bold. Let us say as elected representatives that we stand tonight on the premise and principle that the cays of the territory are off-limits for development."
Last May, the St. Thomas Coastal Zone Management Committee approved the application, but attached a list of conditions intended to protect certain indigenous species, maintain public access to the cay and make sure solid waste is channeled to the St. Thomas dump, among other things. (See "CZM Approves Thatch Cay Development.")
But the proposed construction of a reverse-osmosis plant on submerged lands put the entire application before the Senate's Planning and Environmental Protection Committee last year. The lack of a quorum at that meeting put off a vote on the application, which reappeared before the committee Wednesday night. Had the use of submerged lands been taken out of the picture, the CZM committee's decision would have been final and the project would have already moved forward, CZM Director Janice Hodge said Wednesday.
If the conditions are met, the proposed development would serve the public good, will be in the public interest and will not adversely affect the public health, safety and general welfare, she said. The project, which project architect Robert deJongh said would cater to high-income individuals, would also bring in more money to the territory, create more jobs and support the development of existing or new local industries, Hodge said.
Many community members argued that the proposal violates local zoning laws. The current R-1 (residential low-density) designation does not allow for the construction of facilities such as the RO plant or fuel-storage areas that are laid out in the application, said 16-year-old Sean LaPlace. Claiming that the project would help the territory's economy is "hogwash," he added.
A major bone of contention during the hearing was the construction of a 300-foot docking and barge-landing facility that the Legislature's attorney, Yvonne Tharpes, said was not within the scope of the local CZM statute. For every zoning designation, there's a list of permitted uses, and there's nothing in the law that "docking facilities, barge landings, helicopter pads and the like" would be permitted in this case, she said.
While deJongh said the dock and barge landing have been designed to avoid impact to the surrounding coral reef, Hodge argued that a rezoning, in the case of the dock, was not necessary. The dock can be considered as an accessory use, subject to conditions, she said.
Not convinced by the explanation, some senators tried to offer some advice.
"You're running roughshod over the laws of the Virgin Islands — just comply with them, and you'll probably get the project through," said Sen. Craig W. Barshinger.
The project will unfold in a series of phases stretched out over a decade to make sure certain "environmental commitments" are met, according to developer Paul Lange. Thatch Cay's development team is trying to make sure some or all of the development is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified, which means a series of ecological-construction standards developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, other Thatch Cay testifiers said.
The perimeter around the shoreline would stay green, and the development would include a marine sanctuary and allow continued public access to the key, deJongh said. The comments were backed by some support from community members, who said that only a small percentage of the cay would be developed, leaving the majority of it untouched for future generations.
"We all know the world's economy is in dire straits, unemployment is growing at a record rate," said St. Thomas resident Christie O'Neil. "Yet this development would create jobs and increase the property-tax revenue revenues for the government. It would have an enormously positive effect, with an estimated capital investment of $222 million over a 10-year period."
Green development should be supported, she added.
Williams also voiced his support, saying that the territory should do what it can to hone and promote its tourism product. Many times, the community's actions have stopped progress, leaving portions of the Virgin Islands — like downtown St. Thomas — with broken infrastructure, he said.
"I have looked through this entire proposal — the findings, transcripts, DPNR's recommendations, all the other recommendations," he said. "As a visionary, with no doubt, I believe this is a viable project for the Virgin Islands. If we're going to say that we don't support any development that the people of the V.I. can't purchase, then we're going to have to knock down the Ritz Carlton, the Marriott and only welcome Motel 8's to the territory. We can't just say we're against things just to say we're against them — when something is viable, we have to be open-minded."
The Thatch Cay project could be the epitome of "developments that other developments can emulate," he said later.
Present during Wednesday's hearing was Barshinger, along with Sens. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Hill, Shawn-Michael Malone, Usie R. Richards, Patrick Simeon Sprauve, Michael Thurland, Celestino A. White Sr. and Williams.
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