Op-Ed: An Unconscionable Act by the Virgin Islands Legislature

The site of the Summers End marina in Coral Bay. (Photo by Amy H. Roberts)

How would you feel to wake up one day and find that the government had approved construction of a major private commercial marina on your property, in spite of your open opposition and without your consent? And suppose the same government approved a twenty-year lease of all of the waters directly offshore of your property for the construction of a parking lot for mega yachts, totally obstructing your views and access to the water? I know how the owners of property in Coral Bay felt when exactly this scenario occurred last Friday, Dec. 11.

Seven senators of the Virgin Islands 33rd Legislature – Senators Oakland Benta, Marvin Blyden, Novelle Francis, Donna Frett-Gregory, Myron Jackson, Javan James and Steven Payne – voted to approve illegal CZM permits for construction on 30 acres of submerged land and on seven privately-owned shoreline parcels, over the express objections of owners of five of those seven parcels.

How could this happen? When politics, personal pressure and the lure of money overcome law and commonsense surprising things can happen.

The project, which was ostensibly approved by the 33rd Legislature, is known as the St. John Marina, and the project proponent is known as the Summers End Group, under the control of Ms. Chaliese Summers and Brother Rick Barksdale. Their project has been heavily promoted by ex-Senator Bob O’Connor, who has been pursuing a marina in Coral Bay for decades.

Aside from the environmental impacts of this project – which are extensive given the location on prime sea turtle foraging grounds and in close proximity to the protected waters of the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument – and aside from the highly dubious economic claims of the project proponents and their long history of bankruptcy and litigation – the project documents are blatantly illegal and the subject of numerous lawsuits.

Two of the project parcels are owned by a native St. Johnian family whose attorney wrote a compelling letter to the Legislature on the eve of the vote. This letter described a sordid history of broken promises, apparently fraudulent documents, and double-dealing by a local attorney who represented both the family and the project at the same time. How did these seven Senators deal with the detailed, documented claims made by this native Virgin Island family? They simply held their nose, closed their eyes, and ignored them, while at the same time claiming the project will benefit native St Johnians. An unconscionable act by conflicted individuals.

Two additional parcels are owned by a family who, over seven years ago, were supporters of the marina project. When their honest and sincere efforts to work with the Summers End Group were thwarted by broken promises and years of delay they did as anyone in their position would. They terminated their relationship with Summers End and sought to move on in a direction to benefit their family. In response, Summers End filed documents claiming they, not the deeded owners, have rights to use the property. This dispute is now being heard in two lawsuits, one in federal district court, and one in Virgin Islands Superior Court.

In 2016, when the Virgin Islands Board of Land Use Appeals ordered that the two CZM permits needed to be consolidated into a single permit, the Summers End Group did nothing, knowing that their prospects of ever getting new CZM approval were virtually nil.  Their first approval, facilitated by that same local attorney who was double-dealing with the marina leases, was based on false affidavits by Chaliese Summers claiming she had the authority to develop on land, which she did not have. The 2014 approval by the St John CZM Committee is the subject of two lawsuits currently pending in the Virgin Islands Superior Court.

And in 2019, when the Legislature declined to act on CZM permits due to numerous defects and inconsistencies, rather than amend the project documents and obtain a new CZM approval, Ms. Chaliese Summers enlisted the assistance of Governor Albert Bryan to cure her ills. The Governor unilaterally modified numerous provisions of the permits without any review by CZM, DPNR, or any other agency. The Governor has no authority under Virgin Islands law to modify unapproved CZM permits to suit the wishes of a developer. This blatantly illegal act is now being litigated in Virgin Islands Superior Court pursuant to a lawsuit filed in July 2020 by Save Coral Bay. The court recently denied a request by the Governor to dismiss the lawsuit and ordered the defendants to respond within 30 days.

So, we have been left with a total mess on our hands. Property owners have had their rights stripped from them. Coral Bay has been left in a state of heightened uncertainty.  Rather than clear the air and get a fresh start, which would have been the positive result of denying these flawed permits, we are left in a state of turmoil.

To the seven Senators who voted for this measure, all I can say is shame on you. You must have known better.

David Silverman

Editor’s note: David Silverman is the president of Save Coral Bay Inc., a nonprofit 501(c)3.