For the past six years, the developers of a four-story, ninety-five-foot tall “mega-house” have been carving out a hillside overlooking the north shore of St. John.
While the developers have been systematically breaking just about every single building code in the Virgin Islands, a group of St. John architects and developers, Department of Planning and Natural Resources officials decided last week to reduce the fine they previously imposed.
The development — overlooking the north shore and bordering National Park Service land — is located on two parcels in Estate Denis Bay, Parcel 2A and 2B, owned by Tony Ingrao, a New York based architect and “interior designer to the stars” who includes Howard Stern, Goldie Hawn and Danny Deutsch among his clients.
As details of the developer’s long list of violations continue to emerge, DPNR officials decided to reduce Ingrao’s fine from $10,500 to $9,000 last week.
Ingrao was cited for violations including, according to the notice of violation from DPNR written on July 18, excavations on two parcels of adjacent park property without a permit, excavation work which exceeded the scope specified on his building permit, construction of an electrical room on one of the parcels, construction of a gabion and boulder retaining wall that wasn’t on his approved plan, and excavation affecting adjoining properties, owned by the National Park Service and V.I. government among others.
The work crew was reportedly issued the new notice of violation, reflecting the reduced fine, last week and the developer has 30 days to pay the fine.
The $9,000 hit should not be too big of a problem for Ingrao, whose office is a four-story townhouse with marble floors located on East 64th Street, New York, NY, according to an article in the Drew University alumni magazine, where Ingrao earned an economics degree.
Ingrao and his partner live near their office on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, according to the article.
“Their Fifth Avenue apartment has its own view of the park as well as Ingrao’s own collection of art, which includes pieces by Picasso, Warhol and Rauschenberg,” according to the Drew Magazine article. “Weekends find them in East Hampton, on Long Island, where they keep a home once featured in House & Garden.
Ingrao designed the five-acre landscape, shipping in more than 1,000 trees. ‘It’s kind of fun to play God,’ he says.”
That sentiment could easily be applied to Ingrao’s development on St. John. The list of Denis Bay development violations is long, and work has already impacted sensitive nearby resources, but perhaps even more worrisome is the fact that most applications on file are deficient, inaccurate and misleading, according to the trio of concerned professionals who compiled a letter to DPNR on August 12.
Two architects and a contractor wrote the letter detailing the Estate Denis Bay violations and sent copies to several DPNR officials including Commissioner Alicia Barnes and Coastal Zone Management Director J.P. Oriel.
What worries residents most about the development, however, is the fact that excavation for the project encroached on V.I. National Park land, cutting down rare trees, some hundreds of years old.
“While the ongoing construction is in violation of many governing codes and laws, it is the unauthorized excavation and work beyond his own property and into the adjoining properties including those of the National Park Service that has caused the greatest damage and outrage,” according to the group’s letter.
Starting when Ingrao purchased one of two wooden structures found at the end of an old, unpaved estate road, the developer seems to have violated DPNR regulation after regulation, with at least several applications being submitted by DPNR’s St. John CZM Inspector David Rosa,the group stated in its letter.
Ingrao originally began building on Parcel 2A in 2005, and while it appeared even then that developers were violating building codes and density laws, since the damage was contained on his property, there was little outcry at the time, according to the letter.
“Due to the project’s intimidating design and the lack of response by authorities, the neighbors at Parcel 2B became so demoralized that they sold their property to Denis Bay Properties, LLC, coincidently owned by Ingrao, allowing new construction to then spread into the adjoining lot under separate permit applications,” the three professionals wrote to CZM. “With this acquisition and permits for a total of ‘$450,000’ of construction, excavation and work began again on the multi-million dollar build. Even this could have been explained as another bureaucratic failure but, due to an unchecked ego and hubris, it was decided that the land owned was not enough.”
“Without authority or permits, excavators crossed numerous property lines and into up to seven neighboring properties owned by individuals, the V.I. Government and the Federal Government to remove the trees and ridge line that blocked a sunset view,” according to the letter.
Recently, under a separate permit issued in late 2012, Ingrao expanded into the Right of Way of Route 204, owned by the government, according to the letter by the group.
“Unfortunately, due to a combination of extreme hubris, complicit professionals, and a lack of oversight, the work came to the island’s public full attention in 2013 when construction extended into Parcel 2B and then the ROW,” wrote the group. “It was under this last permit that the entire hillside (estimated to be 500-feet long by 50-feet high) above the project was removed, creating a huge scar visible from miles away. Under permits allowing only the ‘paving of the existing road,’ this adjacent land, owned by NPS and a number of private individuals, was clear cut of tress and heavily excavated without prior authorization and/or approval.”
While many residents have been discussing the developpment of the parcels in Estate Denis Bay, what is less obvious to passers-by, however, is equally troublesome, according to the three professionals.
“In addition, while less noticed, the spoils of this massive dig were then apparently dumped into NPS lands, within Tier 1 and under jurisdiction of CZM, as well as below the project so as to widen the road and apparently fill Parcel 2A to create a garden over 30-feet above existing grade,” according to their letter.
The full 17-page letter from the island architects and contractor, which included an as-built survey and photograph of the project, details problems with each of the permits issued by DPNR to Ingrao and Denis Bay Properties as well as violations of the V.I. Zoning Code, the V.I. Building Code and IRC.
Although the only agency which has yet to issue a fine, albeit a reduced one, to Ingrao has been DPNR, the trio’s letter also detail how several other local and federal government agencies could help ease the environmental impacts of Ingrao’s Estate Denis Bay development.
“There are legitimate solutions that are available to local and federal enforcement agencies to bring the overall project closer to compliance with the laws,” according to the group’s letter. “Given these offenses anywhere else in the United States, much more serious responses would surely have been applied if not simply condemning the entire project. There are many examples of more strict responses already instituted by CZM and DPNR for far minor violations but, unexplainably, have not been required here.”
“In fact, beyond what can only be described as a insignificant fine for this multi-million dollar project, there are many additional remedies that would actually address the governing laws, attempt to make the project more compliant, and would suggest many alternatives that would at least mitigate their impact,” the group wrote.
In addition to DPNR and the department’s CZM and Fish and Wildlife divisions, the territory’s Department of Public Works and State Historic Preservation Office as well the federal EPA and NPS, could all take action on Ingrao’s ongoing Estate Denis Bay development.
“We can only hope that by acting promptly we can prevent further damage from this ongoing project,” the group wrote.