An upcoming decision by the Virgin Islands Legislature to approve or deny a zoning change in Coral Bay could determine the future of this quiet community on the East End of St. John.
The Committee of the Whole met on April 12 to hear testimony from the Moravian Church V.I. Conference which has formed a partnership with T-Rex, LLC to develop nearly 11 acres of church property for a marina and condominium resort.
The Moravian Church Conference of the Virgin Islands is seeking a zoning change for one parcel of the property — about seven acres — which is critical for the development’s viability.
The parcel, which runs along the waterfront in Coral Bay, is currently zoned for three different purposes: R-2, residential low density; W-1, waterfront recreational; and W-2, waterfront industrial.
The Moravian Church Conference is petitioning to change the zoning of the entire parcel to W-1 which would allow T-Rex to construct 89 units for a hotel-condominium. By law, all zoning changes must be approved by the V.I. legislature.
The parcel, locally known as “the flats” and “the ballfield,” has been maintained as open space for centuries and been used by the community for numerous public activities.
The issue has been controversial, and Senate President Neville James was determined to give members of the community the opportunity to testify after each of the 12 senators in attendance took a turn questioning representatives from the Moravian Church, the T-Rex development team, and the Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
The meeting was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m., did not end until 11:30 p.m. Special arrangements for a late ferry were made so that participants from St. Thomas could get back to that island.
Senate President James reminded those in attendance that the purpose of the committee meeting was solely to take testimony, and that no decision would be made during the meeting. The Senate will vote on issue at a future date.
He also reminded the public that the issue before the committee was only the proposed zoning change, not whether or not the Senate would approve the T-Rex’s plans to develop a condominium resort and a marina.
“What’s before us is a petition from the Moravian Church, not T-Rex,” said James. “They could be gone tomorrow.”
Once a zoning change has been granted, the right to develop the property to the full extent of the zoning guidelines remains with the owner.
Department of Planning and Natural Resources supports the zoning request, DPNR Commissioner Dawn Henry said at the meeting.
The Senate must vote on the separate hotel and marina plans after the project is vetted by multiple local and federal agencies, including Army Corps of Engineers and St. John Coastal Zone Management Board.
Moravian Church and T-Rex History
The Moravian Church was first established in the Virgin Islands in 1732. It has a proud history which includes the construction of schools to educate enslaved Africans. In recent years, the Church has found itself in the situation that many native Virgin Islands families are now facing: they’re land rich and cash poor.
The Moravian Church V.I. Conference is the steward for nearly 150 acres of property throughout the Virgin Islands, including the Emmaus Moravian Church which is situated on a hill in Coral Bay just above the parcel under discussion.
Finding the funds to maintain their historic churches and schools has been challenging, and the Moravian Church VI Conference has worked with the Eastern Caribbean Conference (including Moravian congregations in six Caribbean nations) to develop income-generating projects. The Nisky Shopping Center on St. Thomas is one such project.
Spurred by the building boom on St. John, the church began to seek a developer for its surrounding property in Coral Bay in 2004, and in 2007 they entered into a partnership with T-Rex, LLC (also known as Sirius) for the development of 38,000 square feet of waterfront property.
The property was leased to T-Rex for 99 years, according to Samuel Rymer, the property manager for the Moravian Church.
“The value of the lease is determined by how it is developed; the income is derived from a percentage of commodities sold and leased on the property,” he said.
The Oxholm map of 1800 indicates the historic use of the land as open space. According to (now deceased) historian Rafael “Lito” Valls, the flat land was used as a “kraal,” the Danish word for “corral”—a pen for livestock. The name “Coral Bay” derives from this usage.
The Moravian church has always valued unity among its members, but the issue of developing the church land in Coral Bay has caused controversy within the Emmaus congregation.
“The land does not belong to the [Emmaus] congregation,” said Eulencine Christopher, the superintendent of the churches within the U.S. and British Virgin Islands.
“We do have persons who do not want to see development of Coral Bay. Some will work with us. Some do not. We try for unity.”
“They have a layer of politics that divides the people in the congregations,” said Senator Myron Jackson, who took the opportunity to chide the Moravians for “their lack of resources, vision, stewardship, and appreciation.”
“For the past 20 years, I’ve asked the Moravians to be better custodians of their property,” said Jackson.
Jackson said that the Moravians own many historical properties that could generate income from tourists who are seeking cultural experiences.
“When you come to [Coral Bay] you see something special that would be lost on the eve of the Centennial,” he said, referring to next year’s 100-year anniversary of the territory’s acquisition by the United States.
Overall Plans for Marina and Resort
A proposal for a marina was submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers in December 2015. That plan, which is separate from the hotel-condominium resort, calls for construction of a bulkhead, concrete and floating docks to accommodate nearly 90 boats, a fuel dock, a boat service area, a wastewater treatment facility, a reverse osmosis water plant (which is now under question,) sewage pump-out facilities, two buildings, underwater fuel tanks, an emergency generator, and a two-level parking deck for 60 cars.
The proposal for the hotel-condominium includes 89 one and two-story “cottages” clustered around courtyards, according to John Woods, an architect with the Jaredian Design Group which has been developing plans for both the marina and the resort. He said some units may be three stories high, but the slope of the property will reduce the apparent height of the buildings.
The Question of Open Space
Although the plans for the proposed resort will not impede the view of the water from the Emmaus Moravian Church, the condominium units will block the view from the road except for special “visual corridors” which are part of the design.
Furthermore, the construction of the condominium units will significantly decrease the size of the open space, known as “the flats,” between the Emmaus Moravian Church and the waterfront. Woods said that the developers have already reduced the hotel’s footprint in response to community concerns and that an acre and a half will remain as open space.
“It will accommodate seating for 500 people, but it will not be enough for a ballfield,” Woods said.
T-Rex plans to create space for a community ballpark on what’s known as “LaLa Land,” undeveloped land across the road from the proposed resort. Upon questioning from Senator Marvin Blyden, Woods acknowledged that the area proposed for the relocation of the ballfield is a floodplain, and the current design does not provide for a view of the water from there.
When the community was invited to testify during the last hour of the Senate meeting, Lucia Francis, a native St. Johnian, spoke out against the location of the condominiums and the relocation of the ballfield of the development.
“I hate it when we push our people off into the corner into a flood zone,” said Francis. “Why can’t we have the waterfront property? Put [the resort] on the hillside behind the Moravian Church.”
“Maybe you who don’t live in Coral Bay don’t understand our passion,” she said. “Please respect our congregation. I’m begging you, put it at the rear of the church.”
When Senator Jean Forde asked about the number of jobs the development would provide, Woods replied that it was a guess.
“It’s a guess,” said Woods. “I’d say about 60 to 70, and about 100 during construction.”
“The project has been around for a while,” said Senator-at-Large Almando “Rocky” Liburd. “The Church is maximizing its potential with this project. I don’t have a problem with that.”
“The ballfield is the only thing that creates an issue,” said Liburd. “While this [development] may not be the best thing, it starts the process. Too many people have been priced out of this place. All I ask is for more community involvement.”
The potential for jobs is one reason that Ann Prince-Hendrickson, who identified herself as a “sixth-generation St. Johnian,” gave for testifying in favor of the zoning change for the proposed development.
“A large number of native St. Johnians have moved out of the area,” said Hendrickson. “Thirty, 40, 50 jobs are better than none.”
Senator Nereida “Nellie” Rivera-O’Reilly, who attended the meeting through video-conferencing from St. Croix, asked about plans to create jobs and rebuild some of the distressed church properties on St. Croix.
“Can I ask that you channel some of your efforts to St. Croix,” said O’Reilly.
T-Rex will likely seek tax benefits under the EDC program, Woods said.
A question concerning whether or not the Moravian Church was up to date on payment of its property taxes led to much discussion.
“We paid $50,000 for 18 parcels last year,” said Rhymer, “and we are prepared to pay this year; we just haven’t received the bill.”
A dispute about the value some church properties, including cemeteries, is one reason the bills have been delayed, he said. Senator Kurt Vialet spoke in favor of the zoning change.
Upon learning at the meeting that the Church was currently collecting rent from a food truck and a restaurant on part of its property in Coral Bay that is not zoned for business, Vialet expressed concern.
Like several others, he said he was looking forward to the development of the marina because it would lead to cleaning up the waterfront area.
“The boat owners are dumping their sewage and smelling up the harbor,” he said.
The proposal for the marina includes sewage pump-out facilities for boaters. It’s unclear to what extent the lack of such facilities has contributed to the foul smell that often emanates from the mangroves in Coral Bay harbor. The odor may be caused by natural events including the unusually large buildup of Sargassum seaweed.
Yvonne Wells, who described herself as an indigenous Virgin Islander and a nearby resident of the proposed development, said a portion of the 11-acre property that has been leased to T-Rex belongs to the territory and not the Moravian Church. She said that portion was submerged land that was used to store the fill when the Centerline Road (Route 10) was constructed. Submerged lands belong to the government by law.
Comprehensive Land and Water Use Planning
The T-Rex-Sirius marina and resort are not the only proposals for Coral Bay. The Summer’s End Group is actively pursuing plans to build a 144-slip marina which would be located directly across from T-Rex’s marina. If both were built as proposed, Coral Bay would have marinas with a total of more than 230 slips.
When Senator Positive Nelson asked whether both T-Rex’s and Summer’s End Group’s marinas could co-exist, Moravian Church Superintendent Christopher responded yes.
“The executive board met with SEG, and we did decide that the two projects are viable,” said Christopher.
Sharon Coldren, president of the Coral Bay Community Council, addressed the issue of the territory’s lack of integrated planning. In 2013, CBCC sought advice from the American Institute of Architects to work with the community to develop a vision for the future of Coral Bay. Neither of the large-scale developments fits their vision which calls for “small-scale development and entrepreneurial opportunities.”
Senator Janette Millin Young said that the Senate was working on a revised zoning plan which must be completed before a Comprehensive Land and Water Use plan could be developed. The last Comprehensive Land and Water Use plan was passed in 1972.
For more information about development issues in Coral Bay go to www.savecoralbay.com.