NOAA Outlines ‘Necessary Actions’ for Coastal Zone Management

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St. John residents have plenty to say at the August 2017 CZM hearing conducted by NOAA on St John.

First of three stories on Coastal Zone Management in the USVI.

In August 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducted a 10-year evaluation on the U.S. Virgin Islands Coastal Zone Management Program. The evaluation included a public hearing held on each island the last week of August.

Then Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit, hindering communications and slowing the publication of NOAA’s findings.

NOAA’s report outlining its findings, published in July, including a list of CZM’s accomplishments as well as detailed recommendations to improve the program’s performance. NOAA also listed a series of “necessary actions” that the V.I. Government must undertake with specific deadlines, including the filling of vacancies on CZM committees, the hiring of critical staff, particularly for the island of St. John, and improving signage for CZM projects.

Filling Vacancies on the CZM Board

First among the “necessary actions” is the requirement that the “territorial government must begin to fill the vacancies on the CZM committees by July 31, 2019, and aim to fill all vacancies across the coastal zone management committees by July 31, 2020.”

All major construction projects that fall within the designated Tier I boundaries – usually a certain distance or elevation from the coastline – must be reviewed by a committee made up of island residents. The committee consults with staff from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources and holds public hearings, after which it has 30 days to issue, deny, or modify the requested permit.

Each of the three major islands within the territory has its own committee, which is supposed to be composed of five members appointed by the governor and approved by the Legislature.

“On each island, the coastal zone management committee is filled with the bare minimum of only three members per island and all of the seats are beyond their [two-year] term limits,” according to NOAA’s evaluation.

Reaching a quorum of three members may be difficult, the report stated, “but with the rebuilding efforts associated with the 2017 hurricane damage, it is more important than ever to have fully staffed and functional coastal zone management committees.”

Jean-Pierre “JP” Oriol, director of the Division of Coastal Zone Management within the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, said he has been focusing on this issue since June.

NOAA staff listen to testimony in August 2017 at St. John Legislature Annex, CZM Director JP Oriol, sits at far right.

“Committee members must be vetted, verified, and approved by the governor,” he said, “and there’s been a reluctance by the public to go through with the process.”

NOAA’s report filled in some of the details: “On many occasions while meeting with coastal zone management committee members, the evaluation team heard that despite the governor’s office calling for nominations to fill vacancies on the committees, attempts to appoint new members have failed because of the adversarial and invasive nature of the process of going before the legislature.”

“Finding people with great backgrounds isn’t hard,” said Oriol, “but finding those with the willingness is. Our office will have more of a role in trying to recruit committee members.”

Oriol also said the time commitment could be a deterrent for potential committee members on some islands.

“We meet almost monthly on St. Thomas, while on St. John we may meet twice a year aside from full commission meetings.”

In spite of the relatively light workload, Oriol said, finding qualified and willing committee members on St. John has “historically been the most difficult; there’s always been a smaller pool.”

The St. John Committee lost two of its five members between 2012 and 2013, and the government has yet to replace them.

The minimum number of members led to controversy in 2014, when the committee met to hear an application from the Summer’s End Group to build a 145-slip marina development in Coral Bay.

According to NOAA’s report, “The three members of the committee were present, thus a quorum was reached, and due to a perceived conflict of interest, one member abstained from the vote. The remaining two members approved the permit, so the permit was approved through the standard process. However, the case was appealed to the Board of Land Use Appeal (BLUA), which then upheld the determination of the committee. Currently, the decision of BLUA has been appealed again to the Territorial Court and now all parties are waiting for the case to be scheduled.”

When asked if the upcoming election in November added to the complexity of recruiting and approving new committee members, Oriol said, “Whether a new administration is elected or the Mapp Administration continues, the time frame we’ve been allotted allows us to work around the political process.”

Planner for St. John
“A recurrent comment during the public meetings and in the responses to the stakeholder survey was that there is insufficient monitoring and enforcement of the coastal zone management permit conditions – especially for erosion and sedimentation issues. … Many comments made it clear that the coastal program is not well represented on St. John, and the program needs to fill the gap as soon as possible.”

The Coastal Zone Management program is actively seeking someone to fill the position as an environmental planner II for St. John.

“We’ve been posting that position since last year,” said Oriol.

The NOAA evaluation mandates that the position be filled by April 30, 2019.

“There are probably qualified people on St. John, but we haven’t been able to find someone,” said Oriol. “There may be a problem with the title of the position. Applicants see ‘environmental planner,’ and they don’t think they can qualify. We initially required someone with a four-year degree, but we changed that to focus on work experience. It could be someone who knows his way around a construction site and is willing to take on additional training.”

The Department of Labor website includes a listing for an environmental planner II with an annual salary of $33,177.

Under “qualifications,” the listing calls for a minimum qualification of a master’s degree in engineering, architecture or related field; or a bachelor’s degree in engineering, architecture or related field and two years related experience; or an associate’s degree in engineering, architecture, or related field and five years related experience; or having been an environmental planner I for three years.”

The position was held by Carl Howard from 1984 to 2010, and then by David Rosa until 2016, when he left to open his own business. Rosa, who has a four-year degree in engineering, said it would be difficult to live on St. John with the salary presently listed. Since he resigned, the planner from St. Thomas has monitored CZM sites on St. John, according to Oriol.

Rosa said, “It’s an important position, but there are things that make it difficult.”

Among the duties listed, the planner “Reviews coastal zone permit applications for compliance with coastal zone management acts, zoning and environmental laws,” and “works with the applicants to bring permits into compliance if a violation is found.”

Asked whether the position requires some level of enforcement, Oriol said it did.

“As a representative of the commissioner, that person is entitled to halt a project immediately if it is out of compliance. That individual will, in fact, be ‘the bad guy’ in some circumstances.”

Improved Public Notice of CZM Permitted Projects
The Division of Coastal Zone Management has until the end of October to submit a proposal to implement “a consistent, durable, visible, and recognizable system” for posting permitted activity at approved CZM sites. The signs should provide the public with pertinent information about the proposed development as well as outline how to contact DPNR about violations.

Developers are already required to post signs with this information, but Oriol said, “Fewer than 40 percent actually do. What we have to do is be more diligent in enforcing that.”

Oriol said CZM plans to issue new, visible “plaques” at the time the permits are approved, so there is no excuse for not complying with the regulations.

Shared content for Virgin Islands Source and St. John Tradewinds.