Citizens Learn Ins and Outs of CZM Act at CBCC Monthly Forum

Victor Somme

It was no surprise when the Coral Bay Community Council’s (CBCC) monthly forum on Monday, April 24, drew citizens from across the island who traveled out to the John’s Folly Learning Institute on the far southeast side of St. John to listen to territorial and local planning and zoning officials.

The recent surge of large-scale developments across St. John has sparked heightened interest about zoning regulations and enforcement by the Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR) Coastal Zone Management (CZM) Commission.

While many residents have been proposing to include all of Love City in territory’s Tier 1 zonng designation, CZM Director Victor Somme explained the ins and outs of the complex and often confusing CZM program to the packed house.

Territory is Coastal Zone
“I could spend all evening talking about the CZM program, but I will try to condense this for you,” he said. “The entire territory is in the Coastal Zone. That Coastal Zone is then divided into two tiers.”

Tier 1 and Tier 2 were arbitrarily defined by the V.I. Legis-lature in 1978 when the CZM Act was passed—and the boundaries have not changed. Tier 2 is not subject to the CZM Act—CZM only has jurisdiction over Tier 1, Somme explained.

“According to my briefing in history, the distinction between the tiers is arbitrary and was political in nature,” he said. “No town in the V.I. falls under Tier 1. Legislators at that time did not want to lessen development in the towns in the V.I.”

Large portions of waterfront areas of St. John were not designated as Tier 1, allowing for developments such as Grande Bay Resort to occur, which is one of the flaws in the system, Somme added.

Tier 1 and Tier 2
Developments which occur in Tier 2 are subject to earth change and building permits, but not subject to the strict and rigorous review of Tier 1 permits.

There are two types of CZM development permits—minor and major. Minor permits pertain mostly to residential or two-family developments, and major permits include hotel or industrial developments.

Minor permits are handled by the Commissioner of DPNR, who allocates that responsibility to divisions in the department.

Major permit applications fall under the purview of the island-specific CZM Commissions—five-member committees which have the final say in approving or denying major permit applications.

Usually a pre-application meeting between DPNR staff and representatives of the developer is conducted before a major application is even filled out, according to Somme.

Major Permit Process
Major permits, which can only be submitted within the first five days of each month, are re-viewed within 15 days. If the application is deemed complete, it is sent out to different governmental and non-governmental agencies for technical review.

If the permit is deemed complete after that review, a public hearing is scheduled, which is the public’s first opportunity to participate in the CZM process, Somme explained.

“The public gets two bites of the apple,” he said. “People can testify for or against a development at the public hearing. They can also submit written comments within seven days of the hearing.”

As long as the development in question deals only with land—not submerged land—the island-specific CZM Committee has the authority to decide whether to approve the application, according to Somme.

Submerged Lands Public
“If it is a water development, it first comes before the committee and then goes to the governor and the legislature,” he said. “Water permits deal with submerged land. The governor holds submerged lands in trust for the people of the Virgin Islands.”

“No private entity can own submerged lands,” continued Somme. “The land is leased to private entities.”

If everything pertaining to a major permit application in Tier 1 is all in order, the process can take 90 days. In many cases, however, the applications are faulty, which can often drag the process on for months, Somme explained.

BLUA Appellate Body
The Board of Land Use Appeals (BLUA) is the only appellate body for major CZM permits. If a developer does not agree with the CZM Commission’s decision, they can appeal their case to the BLUA—just as the Joseph John Markus Trust did with their Lovango Cay barge facility application.

New legislation would be required in order to include all of St. John in Tier 1, Somme said.

“I would suggest that you petition your legislators if you want the entire St. John included in Tier 1,” he said.

Three of the five St. John CZM Committee members were also present at the CBCC meeting. Chairman Julien Harley, Andrew Penn and Edmund Roberts shared their ideas about the CZM Act and how they feel about recent developments on St. John. St. John CZM Committee members Gerald Hills and Madeline Sewer were not present.

Tier 1 Proposal Supported
“I’ve been on the CZM Commit-tee for a long, long, long time,” said Harley. “I have always been an advocate for Tier 1. But the legislators have a tendency to not do something for just one island.”

Many residents have been calling for instituting a height restriction of three stories for all buildings on St. John, which Harley thought should be seriously considered.

“A maximum of three-story buildings sounds good, but what happens when we run out of room,” he said. “Everyone wants their kids to have a place to live on St. John. With the National Park, we might run out of room someday and have to build up.”

“We don’t ever want to see nine stories on St. John,” said Penn. “That is really alarming. If we run out of land and have to build up, then we can always change the language of the law again.”

Penn, one of the recent additions to the St. John CZM Committee, said that he has an interesting position in the group.

Development Balance Needed
“I make my living from construction,” he said. “I am concerned about the V.I. and St. John in particular, but I make my living from development. There needs to be a balance.”

Roberts, one of the newest members of the committee, is also the oldest.

“As the oldest member, I’ve seen a lot of change on St. John,” he said. “I grew up on St. John and I love this island. After working for the National Park for years, I am a bit biased in terms of land protection.”

Although he personally favors environmental protection, Roberts said that he sees the need for development and looks at each project objectively.

Antiquated Laws
Most of the recent development that has caused furor on St. John, like the proposed nine-story development at Pastory and the three- and four-story buildings at Sirenusa, are due to out-dated laws, according to Harley.

“Most of what’s happening is because of antiquated laws,” he said. “We need to hold our legislators accountable because they make the laws. Some laws on the books are not enforced and we must work on that too.”

Echoing statements that he has made numerous times, Harley said that a planner is St. John’s most urgent need.

Urban Planner Coming?
“A good urban planner is what St. John needs,” he said. “I’ve been asking for this for years. After the mini-protest at Enighed, (V.I. Gov. Charles) Turnbull said to me, ‘I have to get you a planner.’”

“The government is trying to find a way to fund a planner now,” Harley continued. “It will cost at least $65,000, but it is to everyone’s advantage to have a planner.”

Long-time Love City resident Norman Gledhill suggested using EDC beneficiaries to fund the much-needed town planner position.

The upcoming V.I. National Park’s General Management Plan public meeting—on May 3 in Coral Bay at JFLI and May 4 in Cruz Bay at Spruave School—will take the place of May’s CBCC meeting, added CBCC President Sharon Coldren.