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Island Paradise At Risk

Resort development threatens reefs, turtles
March 12, 2003

Endangered leatherback turtles forage in Botany Bay and may nest at Sandy Bay
Photo by National Park Service
ST. THOMAS, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS — 
A local conservation group is challenging a plan to build a massive resort complex in St. Thomas, covering hundreds of acres of pristine coastal habitat in one of the island's last undeveloped parcels of land.

The resort, which would include hotels, restaurants, condominiums and time share properties, is slated to ultimately sprawl over some 360 acres bordering Botany Bay on the western end of St. Thomas. Approval for the initial 69-acre development was granted in September 2002 by the St. Thomas Coastal Zone Management Committee.

The Committee approved the permit despite fierce public opposition and over the objection of its own staff, which informed the Committee that the application was incomplete and would "result in a project, which, at best, would be extremely difficult to monitor and ensure compliance." According to CZM staff, the developer has not provided enough information to determine what environmental impacts of the project will have, much less how they should be mitigated.

The Environmental Association of St. Thomas-St. John (EAST), represented by Earthjustice, has petitioned the Board of Land Use Appeals to reverse the CZM decision, deny the developer's permit application, and hold a new hearing on the planned development.

"The CZM's own staff concluded that the developer should withdraw the application and provide additional information," said Aliki Moncrief, attorney with Earthjustice. "The Committee's decision to approve the permit without further investigation was irresponsible and arbitrary, and should be overturned."

The U.S. Virgin Islands Coastal Zone Management Act requires any person wishing to develop an area within the coastal zone to obtain a permit, to demonstrate that the proposed development is "consistent with the basic goals, policies and standards" of the Act, and that it will, "as finally proposed, incorporate ... to the maximum extent feasible mitigation measures" to lessen or eliminate adverse environmental impacts. If the applicant fails to do so, the permit "shall be denied," according to the Act.

The CZM program staff found numerous defects and inconsistencies in the development application filed by Botany Bay Partners, LLP. The developer's assertion that the project will not adversely impact stormwater flows, for example, is contradicted by its own data showing that runoff will increase by up to 43 percent in some areas – and during construction, the expected increase is even higher. The developer's failure to include sediment and erosion controls in the project work plan is likely to impact marine resources, despite Botany Bay Partners claims to the contrary.

The developer also failed to adequately survey Botany Bay's beaches for sea turtle use. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the three-day survey conducted by the developer does not sufficiently document sea turtle use of the beaches and is inadequate to determine what measures are needed to minimize harm to sea turtles and their nesting habitat.

In addition, the resort's water demand and waste disposal needs have been grossly underestimated, based on far fewer resort employees and visitors than the development is ultimately expected to support.

The resort would cover more than half of the former estate of industrialist Warren H. Corning, known locally as Botany Bay. Because of the unusual combination of natural and historical resources within Botany Bay, the legislature of the U.S. Virgin Islands has designated the Botany Bay as an Area of Particular Concern, and the parcel has been managed as a wildlife sanctuary since 1959.

In addition to the many pressing environmental issues, EAST and many Virgin Islanders are concerned about damage to important historic sites. Botany Bay was formerly a plantation under Danish Colonial Rule, and a large slave cemetery and the ruins of a sugar mill are found at the site. Botany Bay is also home to rare pre-Columbian artifacts and sites that have yet to be fully catalogued, and experts believe it was considered a holy place by the Tainos and other native peoples that once populated the Eastern Caribbean.

Many of those protesting the resort project have called on the federal Department of the Interior to create a new national park at the Botany Bay site. Two sites at Botany Bay are already listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The area is home to a wide variety of birds, mammals, and marine species, such as the red fruit bat, which is listed as endangered by the U.S. Virgin Islands and is one of only three bat species known to exist on the Virgin Islands. Five plant species listed as locally rare or endangered have been found at Botany Bay.

The limited development of the watershed has resulted in only minor disturbances to the area's marine resources, giving Botany Bay one of the most pristine marine environments left in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The relatively undisturbed nearshore marine habitats contain coral reefs, mangroves, sandy bottoms, rocky shores, and seagrass beds. More coral and sponge species are found at Mermaids Chair, along the southern coast of Botany Bay, than anywhere else in the tropics.

The region's coral reefs, seagrass beds, and other natural resources have remained among the healthiest in the Territory, thanks to the minimal development. Sandy Bay, which abuts the northern coast of the estate, provides nesting habitat for sea turtles and the surrounding coral reefs and seagrass beds provide important foraging habitat for the leatherback and the hawksbill, both endangered species, and the green turtle, a threatened species.

"Botany Bay is one of the last pristine parcels of coastal habitat on the whole island," said Carla Joseph, President of EAST. "Development on the scale proposed by Botany Bay Partners could do major damage to coastal ecosystems, including fragile corals and seagrass, and harm endangered species. The Coastal Zone Management Committee needs to take a closer look at these resort plans, and ensure that they will not irreparably harm Botany Bay's precious natural resources."

EAST will be represented by Earthjustice, and by Virgin Islands attorney Karin A. Bentz.

"The firm is committed to making sure the U.S. Virgin Islands continues to be an environmentally beautiful place and the our government complies with all laws concerning development that are currently on the books," Bentz said." We are proud to offer our assistance as a community service to the beautiful island of St. Thomas."


Contact:
Aliki Moncrief, Earthjustice, 850-681-0031
Carla Joseph, EAST, 340-774-8816