CZM Testifiers Highlight Regulatory Loopholes for Floating Businesses

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The Lime Out, located on the island of St. John. (Photo sourced from Facebook under the free content license.

Several testifiers shed light on ongoing Department of Planning and Natural Resources permitting issues at Thursday’s Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee hearing, pointing out that projects like the floating bar Lime Out don’t require Major Land Permits vetted by the Coastal Zone Management Commission.

Now with similar ventures planned, such as Cowgirl Bebop, a proposed floating bar between Mingo and Grass Cays in Pillsbury Sound, Coastal Zone Management Commission member David Silverman said floating businesses have exposed an “illogical and major loophole in our existing regulatory framework.”

Silverman said the activities of DPNR surrounding these two projects show there is a lack of permitting guidance within existing V.I. code that relate to floating commercial establishments. “Although we have regulations dealing with motorized vessels, there is nothing that deals explicitly with a restaurant barge moored at a single location every day for months at a time,” he said.

Silverman asked senators to imagine for a moment that someone wished to build and operate a restaurant near the shoreline. They would need to find a zoned parcel with adequate room for parking and construction. He explained they would then need to file for and obtain a CZM Major Land Permit and solidify approval from the building department, health department and additional agencies before they would be allowed to open their doors to the public.

“However, if you built this exact same structure on the shoreline, placed it on pontoon floats and towed it 500 feet offshore, you could drop an anchor and open for business with no CZM permit, no building permit, no zoning, virtually no regulation,” Silverman said.

As it stands in current CZM code, which has not changed since 1979, CZM only reviews projects requiring major permits and not minor permits.

“Major permitting entails increased documentation and analysis of environmental impacts.  Major permitting allows for public participation in permit review,” Silverman said.

Part four of proposed legislation (bill no. 33-0105) up for discussion during Thursday’s hearing seeks to bring some resolution to these permitting concerns by “modifying some of the requirements for the issuance of permits for the development or occupancy of trust lands or other submerged or filled lands.”

An amendment sought by attorney Jennifer Jones states if the DPNR commissioner, upon reviewing any minor permit application, determines that a proposed activity is likely to have significant adverse environmental consequences, they will within ten days of deeming the application complete forward it to CZM for review as a major coastal zone permit.

Testifiers strongly supported amendments like the aforementioned one. “Suppose not one, but five, or ten of these floating establishments began operating at all hours of the day. Clearly this type of activity in our territorial waters needs to be regulated,” Silverman said.

He added that additional language should be included in the bill that requires “floating retail structures” to go under the purview of CZM. He proposed a definition which differentiates these structures from traditional vessels, charter boats or other mobile on-water business operations.

“The markup includes guidelines for the creation of regulations to control location, density, hours of operation and other key measures to ensure that floating retail establishments do not adversely impact our coastal zone and its traditional uses,” Silverman said.

Because the bill was thought to need many additional amendments before being forwarded to the Committee of the Whole, the five senators present all voted to hold the bill. Present for the vote were Sens. Alicia Barnes, Janelle Sarauw, Novelle Francis, Javan James, and Steven Payne. Sens. Kenneth Gittens and Myron Jackson were absent.

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