The public can weigh in on whether a 120-foot floating barge containing a restaurant and a bar should be allowed to operate off two uninhabited cays near St. Thomas and St. John.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers set a 30-day period beginning April 26 to solicit comments regarding Cowgirl Bebop LLLP, a project that has stirred controversy since it was first presented to the public in November 2019.
The project has drawn support from those who want to see more development geared to recreation, particularly for boaters seeking places to eat and drink offshore.
It has also drawn opposition from those who wish to preserve a pristine area including two Pillsbury Sound cays, one a wildlife sanctuary, and the other recently donated to a land trust.
The full text of the notice which describes the project can be seen here.
Comments from the public regarding the potential authorization of the work proposed should be submitted in writing to the attention of the District Engineer through the Antilles Permits Section at Fund. Ángel Ramos, Annex Building, Ste. 202, Av. Franklin Delano Roosevelt #383, San Juan, 00918. Alternatively, comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Questions concerning this application should be directed to the project manager, Ms. Karen Urelius, in the Antilles Permits Section by electronic mail at email@example.com or by telephone at 787-370-8359.
It’s recommended that the permit’s application number, SAJ-2019-02712 (SP-KMU), be included in the correspondence. The deadline for comments is May 26.
It is not usual for the Army Corps to require a permit for a vessel, but the Army Corps determined “the barge is being designed to accommodate a floating bar and restaurant; its primary function is not for navigation. In addition, it will be moored for multiple months in the same location without moving, serving more as a structure than a vessel. Therefore, the Corps has determined a permit in accordance with Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act is warranted.”
The question of whether the barge is a structure or a vessel has led to confusion throughout the permitting process. That question is thought to be one of the causes leading to the delay in the permitting process when the developers originally filed an application for the project in July 2019. The delay led to a judge’s decision to grant a minor Coastal Zone Management permit for the barge’s moorings by default because the permit application was not processed in a timely manner.
After the project came to the public’s attention in November 2019, community activists argued that for many reasons, including overall costs, the developers needed to apply for a major Coastal Zone Management permit.
A major Coastal Zone Management permit for the proposed project was then submitted and supported by the staff of the V.I. Department of Planning Natural Resources; however, it was denied by the St. John Committee of the Coastal Zone Management in September 2019.
That decision was overturned in March by the Board of Land Use Appeals.
Cowgirl Bebop is owned by William “Bill” Perkins III, a hedge fund manager and professional poker player who lives on St. Thomas. He also owns Brisa Max Holdings VI LLC, a beneficiary of tax breaks through the University of the Virgin Islands Research and Technology Park.
The Army Corps has invited the public to comment on, “All factors which may be relevant to the proposal; among these are conservation, economics, esthetics, general environmental concerns, wetlands, historical properties, fish and wildlife values, flood hazards, floodplain values, land use, navigation, shoreline erosion and accretion, recreation, water supply and conservation, water quality, energy needs, safety, food, and fiber production, mineral needs, considerations of property ownership, and in general, the needs and welfare of the people.”
The notice issued by the Army Corps says community input will affect its decision to grant the permit.
“The decision whether to issue or deny this permit application will be based on the information received from this public notice and the evaluation of the probable impact to the associated waters,” according to the notice.
The notice further states, “A permit will be granted unless its issuance is found to be contrary to the public interest.”
The project is designed to offer an attraction in U.S. waters for boaters who might otherwise head to locations in the British Virgin Islands. The best known site in the BVI is the Willy T., a party boat anchored in a bay on the western side of Norman Island that is particularly sheltered from winds and currents.
However, the proposed site of Cowgirl Bebop – approximately 500 feet from Mingo Cay and Grass Cay in Pillsbury Sound – is subject to sudden swells and strong currents.
In the late 1980s, three boy scouts drowned at that location when their dinghy overturned in a sudden swell.
According to the Army Corps’ notice, “A hurricane preparedness plan has been developed and will be implemented. The barge will be removed from the water from July 15 through October 15, when hurricanes are most likely in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In the event of a hurricane threat outside of this window, from October 16 through July 14, the barge will either be removed from the water or secured in a sheltered area.”
Once it is built, Cowgirl Bebop will be towed to its location in Pillsbury Sound; it’s unclear from the application whether the two 300-horsepower engines will generate sufficient power to allow the barge to move under its own power in an emergency. It’s also unclear where the barge will be stored if a sudden storm arises.
The restaurant/lounge is intended to be a “zero-discharge operation” according to Amy Dempsey, president of Bioimpact, Inc., an environmental consulting firm representing the developer. Nothing will be dumped in the sea; all waste will be off-loaded regularly on St. Thomas by two support vessels.
According to the permit proposal, gray water (from dishwashing) and black water (sewage) will be stored in holding tanks equipped with alarms set to go off when they reach 50 percent capacity.
Environmentalists have questioned whether the nearest sewage treatment plant in Red Hook or any other local facility can accommodate the additional load.
Cowgirl Bebop was granted a CZM permit for moorings for the barge and eight adjacent moorings for vessels up to 60-feet long.
“Visiting boats will be able to tie up to the barge or use a mooring buoy, thus avoiding impacts to the benthic habitat from individual vessel anchors,” the notice states.
Mariners familiar with the proposed site question whether boaters who are not familiar with the site, and who may not be tied to the vessel or one of these eight moorings, will be able to anchor safely. Although the barge will be located in an area with a sandy bottom, damage could be inflicted on nearby coral and seagrass beds.
The notice also states, “To encourage a safe recreational environment, the applicant will prohibit jumping off the vessel into the water and will discourage swimming around the barge. In addition, Cowgirl Bebop, LLLP will discourage and advise clients against going ashore on Mingo Cay or Grass Cay.”
At previous public hearings, community members have questioned whether the staff aboard Cowgirl Bebop will be able to enforce these provisions. They have also asked what additional government services might be required to respond to a health emergency, fire, or law enforcement situation that could occur at an offshore location.
In order to secure its permits, Cowgirl Bebop has already participated in two informal public hearings held live and two official public hearings held online.
However, any member of the public can request that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also hold a public hearing. The notice states, “Any person may request a public hearing. The request must be submitted in writing to the District Engineer within the designated comment period of the notice and must state the specific reasons for requesting the public hearing.”
The public notice also states, “This public notice is being issued based on information furnished by the applicant. This information has not been verified or evaluated to ensure compliance with laws and regulations governing the regulatory program.”