Coral Bay Harbor (taken from Friends of the VINP Facebook page).
CORAL BAY — About six weeks after the St. John Coastal Zone Management Committee okayed a mega-marina for Coral Bay, the Save Coral Bay campaign has managed to raise more than $60,000 for legal fees while spearheading a multi-pronged attack on the project.
On October 1, Summers End Group was granted a Major Land and Water Use permit by the St. John Coastal Zone Committee to construct a 145-slip marina taking up 28 acres of submerged land in Coral Bay harbor.
The project faced strong opposition by many Coral Bay residents and visitors, who launched the Save Coral Bay campaign and Fund on October 4. Since then, the group of community activists with support from Coral Bay Community Council, as well as across the country and the world, has raised in excess of $63,000 through a www.GoFundMe.com site.
Last week — jut a day after Governor John deJongh signed SEG’s permit and sent it to members of the 30th Legislature urging their approval —Save Coral Bay announced its cooperation with the St. Thomas-based Virgin Islands Conservation Society to initiate legal action against the marina development.
The Save Coral Bay partnership with VICS was announced in a press release issued on November 12. The two groups crossed paths following the August CZM hearing on the SEG marina, explained Save Coral Bay organizer David Silverman.
“VICS, along with hundreds of other individuals and agencies, took the initiative to comment on the Summers End Group application during the CZM Public Hearing in August,” Silverman said. “Following that meeting we stayed in touch, hopeful that the St. John CZM Committee would do the right thing and deny the permits due to their significant environmental impacts.”
“Unfortunately, as we all know, they approved the permits with virtually no modification on October 1,” he said. “At that point we got in contact with VICS and discussed the best strategy to appeal the decision of the CZM board. The Save Coral Bay Fund, together with the Coral Bay Community Council, decided that the best strategy was to combine forces with VICS to pursue appeals.”
VICS was formed more than 45 years ago and the Coral Bay marina won’t be the group’s first time fighting on behalf of the environment, according to Save Coral Bay’s prepared statement.
“The Virgin Islands Conservation Society has an over 45 year track record of successes in protecting the natural environment of the USVI,” according to the press release. “VICS has successfully fought to prevent environmentally destructive development from damaging the fragile ecosystems of the Virgin Islands and encouraging responsible development.”
While the partnership is new, the two groups are in alignment about fighting SEG’s marina, explained Silverman.
“The partnership is in its early days and I have nothing but positive things to say about the VICS participation,” said Silverman. “We are in complete agreement on legal strategy and tactics and are grateful for the vast experience that VICS brings to the table in these Virgin Islands environmental matters.”
After interviewing several local attorneys, it was St. Thomas based Jennifer Jones, a former CZM staff attorney, whom the group retained as legal counsel.
“We interviewed several attorneys that had experience in Virgin Islands environmental law,” Silverman said. “Attorney Jennifer Jones was the V.I. CZM attorney for several years, so she is intimately familiar with the CZM law and Board of Land Use Appeals procedures. Since Jennifer is based in St Thomas, it makes it very convenient if we need to meet or if she needs to visit the DPNR offices in Charlotte Amalie.”
“She was the best choice for the job,” he said.
The groups have also hired Attorney Andy Simpson, who has worked with VICS for years, as chief litigation counsel, Silverman added.
“Andy Simpson has worked for years with VICS and is particularly experienced in the VI Superior Court, VI Supreme Court and the Federal District Court,” said Silverman. “He has a long track record of successful legal challenges based on environmental issues. So he was our preferred attorney to work with Jennifer on litigation matters.”
“They are as good a team as you can get for Virgin Islands environmental law,” said the community activist.
Citing problems with SEG’s application and the St. John CZM Committee’s mismanagement of the permitting process, the groups are filing an appeal of SEG’s permit with the Board of Land Use Appeals, according to Silverman.
“The BLUA appeal will cite the problems with the SEG applications and CZM review that you have heard mentioned in the public hearings in August, and the numerous letters and comments made in the media since then,” he said. “These concerns range from information that was missing in the applications, the severe and unmitigated environmental impacts, the way in which the three-person CZM committee handled the hearings and decision, problems with the Trust Lands lease agreement, and a multitude of other issues that are all raised in the BLUA appeals.”
There was no word as of press time when BLUA would hear the appeal. The board usually schedules hearing after an appeal is filed.
In addition to the local attorneys, Save Coral Bay and VICS have retained — on a pro-bono basis — the services of Manko, Gold, Katcher and Fox, a renowned environmental law firm based in Pennsylvania and New Jersey which will oversee the multi-agency federal review process coordinated by the Army Corps of Engineers, explained Silverman.
“One of the partners of Manko Gold, Robert Fox, is a frequent visitor to St John,” Silverman said. “He heard about the concerns with the Summers End Group marina and reached out to us to see whether his extensive background in the federal courts could be of assistance. After several discussions with Mr. Fox and his partner Jonathan Rinde we decided that their expertise would be a perfect complement to the local team of Jennifer Jones and Andy Simpson.”
“With this group of attorneys we have all of our bases covered,” he said.
After sailing through the St. John CZM Committee in October, the governor signed the permits last week and urged senators to take “prompt and favorable consideration” on the submerged land lease. Governor deJongh’s support of the project was no surprise, according to Silverman.
“We were disappointed that the governor failed to take public sentiment into account when he signed this permit,” he said. “We weren’t surprised because he had announced almost a year ago that he was in favor of a marina on St John — even before the permit applications were filed — but nonetheless we were disappointed in the apparent lack of interest in public comments.”
It was unknown last week when the project would be heard by members of the Committee on Economic Development chaired by Senator Jeanette Millin-Young, Silverman added.
“We do not know if, or when, the Senate will take up consideration of the submerged Trust Lands lease agreement,” said the community activist. “We do know that under normal circumstances it would be reviewed by Senator Janette Millin-Young’s Committee on Economic Development, and we are assuming that will be the case.”
“I understand that many people have phoned Senate President Malone and Senator Millin-Young to express their view that this permit should not be rushed through the review process as requested by the governor,” he said.
Even with legislative approval, work on the 145-slip, 28-acre spanning mega marina planned for Coral Bay won’t begin until SEG receives all federal approval and permits, according to Silverman.
“According to the express language on the permit, no work can begin until all federal permits and agency approvals have been received by SEG,” he said. “So an approval by the Legislature does not mean that work will begin; the ACOE review involves a coordinated review by multiple federal agencies, and can take a very long time.”
The Save Coral Bay campaign, which started with a group of residents communicating online, has grown into a coordinated effort taking full advantage of social media, and that’s just beginning, Silverman explained.
“A group of people had been exchanging ideas on Facebook since August, but this was more oriented towards letter writing and submitting comments to the CZM committee,” said the community activist. “Once it became clear that a legal challenge to the permits would be required, we mobilized our resources and set up the funding campaign, which has now become known as the Save Coral Bay Fund.”
“We have a communications campaign that is just beginning — starting with bumper stickers for awareness — and moving into printed brochures to get the message to visitors and to people on island who aren’t connected to Facebook or the internet,” Silverman said. “We are communicating with our government officials on a regular basis.”
The fight against SEG’s mega-marina has galvanized supporters from around the world, explained Silverman.
“Our supporters are literally all over the world, with several thousand participants in our Save Coral Bay community on Facebook, and over 500 individual financial supporters in our GoFundMe campaign,” he said. “Our campaign is composed almost exclusively of people with a direct connection to St. John — people who now or previously lived here, people who own homes and businesses here, and people who visit here on a regular basis.”
“These people are shocked at the idea that a group of outside investors could come into Coral Bay and destroy the very things they love,” said Silverman. “Our support is motivated by the love for St John and Coral Bay.”
For more information about Save Coral Bay, check out the group’s website at www.savecoralbay.com. To make a donation go to www.gofundme.com/coralbay.