The development of a marina project slated for Coral Bay, St. John has become even more complex as a result of a lawsuit filed in Superior Court in March.
Three children of Minerva Marsh Vasquez and Eglah Marsh Clendenin, the two elderly sisters who allegedly signed a series of lease agreements to develop their shoreline property, have filed suit against the Summer’s End Group and former St. John attorney J. Brion Morrisette.
Attorneys Carol A. Rich and Adriane J. Dudley filed the complaint. It states, “For more than 15 years, Defendants and their predecessors have tricked, induced, coerced and bamboozled Plaintiffs with a series of bogus agreements and false promises that they would be paid for the use of their land to develop a marina, which would provide income for their care and comfort. Instead, their land has been tied up, the promised rents have not been paid, and the development has yet to materialize.”
“Plaintiffs seek to declare their rights and be paid what is due to them from defendants for the fair market value of the loss of their property,” the suit continues. That amount, yet to be determined, has been set as “not less than $700,000.”
The suit alleges that for 17 years the Marsh sisters have received only $45,000 for the use of the property, which comes to a monthly rate of $220.50.
The 15-page lawsuit traces the history of the project, which began in 2004 when Morrisette, who served as the family attorney for the Marsh sisters, prepared legal documents for the lease of their property to Coral Bay Marina LLC, a marina project spearheaded by the late Robert O’Connor Jr.
The suit alleges that Morrisette was a managing member of Coral Bay Marina LLC, which made him an interested party to all the transactions and “placed him in an unreconcilable conflict of interest.”
Morrisette disputes this claim.
“Suffice to say, for the moment, that Bob O’Connor and I genuinely loved and respected those wonderful ladies, so great pains were taken to fashion a lease that was very fair. The claims are false, offensive, and malicious.”
Morrisette also said that the lawsuit was filed as part of a strategy to get back at him for his successful efforts last summer to remove David Silverman, a fellow member of the St. John Committee of Coastal Zone Management, from his position.
Monday, Morrisette was not ready to let the point go, sending an email to further defend the reputation of his late friend O’Connor and his own reputation. In that message, he wrote:
“I was honored to be a friend and business partner with Bob O’Connor, whose decades-long, loving relationship with Ms. Eglah Marsh Clendinen was the reason he and I even got involved in trying to work together to realize the Marsh Sisters’ goal of having their family land generate revenue by housing (and ultimately owning) a marina that would be good for Coral Bay/St. John, and generating cash flow for themselves, and for their heirs. The effort to discredit Bob and me is flat-out outrageous and offensive.”
The 2003 Coral Bay Marina project never came to fruition, but around 2012, O’Connor and Morrisette formed a corporation, Marina Asset Partners, which allegedly leased the Marsh Sisters’ property for ten years with an option to renew “at drastically reduced rental terms,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit further states that in 2014, Morrisette and O’Connor “executed an absolute assignment of the lease to the Summer’s End Group, LLC” the corporate entity which now holds the permits to construct a 144-slip marina in Coral Bay.
In 2016, the Marsh sisters allegedly signed an addendum to a lease agreement to waive all rent payments from the Summer’s End Group in exchange for a payment of $25,000 (beyond a $20,000 initial payment) and a one-percent interest in the Summer’s End Group once the permits were approved.
Although the permits for the marina and adjacent shoreline development were approved by the St. John Committee of Coastal Zone Management in 2014, a series of legal challenges ensued, delaying their ratification by the V.I. Legislature and approval by the governor.
After seven years of wrangling, the permits were signed by the governor and ratified by the Virgin Islands Legislature in 2020. Several other lawsuits related to the project are still pending.
Robert O’Connor Jr., who spent more than 17 years trying to build a marina in Coral Bay, died in December 2020.
Construction of the marina has not begun. The project still needs the approval of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The marina project, which was known in 2014 as the Yacht Club at Summer’s End and later rebranded as the St. John Marina, has gone through a series of design changes during the seven years since the permits were initially approved by CZM.
According to the lawsuit, from 2011 to 2018 O’Connor and his partners continued to negotiate additional lease agreements and addenda which Marsh family members are now challenging.
Their suit alleges there were inconsistencies and irregularities associated with the signing of documents that conveyed the land into the Marsh Sisters Trust, the entity which eventually bound the land to the Summer’s End Group.
“The lease and related documents upon which the Defendants have relied to use, control, and occupy Plaintiffs’ property are unenforceable because these documents are void, defective and unconscionable and were obtained by undue influence and gross breaches of a fiduciary relationship of trust and influence,” the complaint alleges.
Chaliese Summers, the member manager for the Summer’s End Group, disputes the charges in the lawsuit.
“The lawsuit is not filed by the Marsh Sisters Trust or the Marsh sisters, but by three of their children,” Summers said. “The Marsh sisters have never challenged the Trust, or the lease with Summer’s End. The challenge to the Trust and the lease is a meritless attempt of these three children of the Marsh Sisters to leverage unwarranted payments from Summer’s End. It was only when Summer’s End refused to be coerced into making unjustifiable payments outside their agreement that Jacqueline Clendinen, Ernie Clendinen, and Gary Lopez filed this suit.”
Summers said, “The Trust was created 17 years ago and was reaffirmed by Eglah and Minerva Marsh multiple times since then. At no time in the past 17 years did either sister attempt to cancel, challenge or alter the Trust or their lease agreement with Summers End.”
“Also, in late 2019 and early 2020, Jacqueline Clendinen and Gary Lopez (both of whom filed the lawsuit) and Minerva Marsh specifically admitted that the Trust was valid and properly executed in 2004,” Summers said.
Summers also disputed the assertions that the lease agreements were invalid. “Like the Trust, it was never challenged nor sought to be renegotiated by either Marsh sister.”
“Summer’s End will be moving to dismiss these meritless claims and will comply with all lease terms between it and the Marsh Sisters Trust,” Summers said. “Summer’s End looks forward to breaking ground on this project in the very near future, so that everyone involved in the St. John Marina and the local community of Coral Bay can begin to enjoy the rejuvenation of their ancestral home.”
Editor’s note: This story has been edited since it was first posted, adding additional commentary from one of the sources.