The proponents of a controversial marina project for Coral Bay on St. John announced last week that the project is “moving forward” through the permitting process.
The project, officially titled The St. John Marina but locally known as Summer’s End, received preliminary approval by the St. John Committee of the Coastal Zone Management Board in 2014. Since its initial approval, it has been stymied by public outcry, legal challenges and government requests for further studies.
The plans for the project include 144 wet slips for luxury yachts ranging from 30 feet to more than 150 feet in length, and a land portion with restaurants, retail shops, and condos for short-term rental.
Chaliese Summers, managing member of The Summer’s End Group, LLC, said the developers have responded to requests for further information to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and are now beginning a six-month process to review environmental concerns with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Because the developers have not made a public announcement of the project’s advancement in almost two years, it was widely believed that project had been withdrawn from consideration, but Summers said this perception was incorrect.
“Summer’s End has always been moving forward with the permitting and development of the St. John Marina at Summer’s End,” Summers said. “We did not withdraw our application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nor did we submit a ‘new’ proposal. The USACE asked us for more information in response to comments that they received from the federal agencies and the public.”
Summers said the developers responded to concerns in a formal submission to USACE on Aug. 15, 2017.
“The submission included economic impact report, marina market analysis, scientific studies and data, proposed mitigation plan to improve the environment of Coral Harbor, detailed wind wave analysis, turtle studies, etc.” she wrote.
Summer’s End generates controversy
Six federal agencies have raised serious concerns about the negative effects of the project. They are the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Coast Guard.
Following the 2014 decision to approve the project by the St. John CZM Board, St. John resident David Silverman spearheaded a non-profit organization called Save Coral Bay to oppose the development of Summer’s End and another controversial marina project proposed for Coral Bay. That effort led the public to submit 22,000 letters and emails opposing Summer’s End to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2015.
Since then, Summers says the developers have taken federal agencies’ and the public’s responses to heart and have made modifications, including:
– Relocating the docks to take advantage of the natural channel, which would reduce the need for dredging.
– Decreasing the total size of the dock by almost 461 square feet,
– Reducing the number of pilings driven into the seafloor during construction by 376.
Silverman disputed these claims. He said that Summer’s End has only made trivial changes in their marina plans and it is basically the same design that the group has been pushing for over four years.
“The reduction in size amounts to less than one half of one percent of the total dock area (from 74,052 square feet to 73,591 square feet) and was required due to the discovery of a historic shipwreck within the footprint of the marina” according to Silverman.
The reduction of pilings from 1,333 to 960 was accompanied by a reduction in the wind speed design criteria for the marina to a maximum wind speed of 96 miles per hour, according to the design plans submitted by SEG, Silverman added.
Silverman says these measures will not satisfy the “more than 100 issues, deficiencies and concerns” raised by the Army Corps, which include threats to marine habitats as well as negative economic effects.
Opponents of the project say the location of the proposed site is unfavorable because it is too close to the Virgin Islands National Park and the Coral Reef National Monument. They also argue that wind and wave conditions make it unsafe, and that its size – roughly 50 percent of the inner harbor – will restrict others’ use of the harbor and the shoreline.
“This week the Corps sent consultation requests to National Marine Fisheries Service Protected Resource Division (responsible for endangered species including marine turtles) and NMFS Habitat Conservation Division (responsible for Essential Fish Habitat, included sea grasses,)” Silverman wrote. “So SEG is using this activity to claim that the permit is ‘moving forward.’ When you move forward towards a brick wall, you just get closer to a collision.”
Silverman said Summer’s End’s claim that the permit was “advancing,” as stated in a press release dated July 12, was written “to deflect from the bad news that the last letter from the Army Corps contained. In that letter, the Corps stated that the preliminary staff determination was that the project may not meet the public interest requirement and this would be cause for denial.”
The full text of the USACE last correspondence with the Summer’s End Group is online here.
Developer emphasizes need for the project
Summers counters that there has long been a need for a marina on St. John, and her project will create jobs.
“The St. John Marina at Summer’s End projects economic impact and job creation for St. John and the territory of the USVI as a result of the project, including 80 or more direct and indirect, long-term full-time jobs in Coral Bay and 240 jobs territory wide.
“The St. John Marina at Summer’s End is projected to have a $45.2 million economic impact in the first five years operation with $8.3 million annual operational economic impact locally on St. John,” Summers wrote.
Consultants working with Save Coral Bay have disputed these claims. “The economic impact estimates provided in the SEG Report are based on seriously flawed, unreliable data,” economist Richard Voith said, and, “The positive economic impacts, to the extent they exist, are unlikely to flow in large measure to St. John residents.”
Summers said the proposed project will enhance Coral Bay by bringing much needed services, including sewage pump-out facilities for boats, a fuel dock, and a location for a new Customs and Border Protection facility. The recently planned addition of a boardwalk will enhance safety for pedestrians as they enjoy the views, she said.
When Summer’s End was first proposed, developers envisioned the marina as the first phase of what would be a multi-year project to include an upscale shopping center, residences, a hotel, and a spa. Since then, the plan has been scaled down.
“Summer’s End St. John is a destination development that is planned to modestly have a few restaurants and eateries in Coral Harbor, a provisioner and wine and cheese shop, executive office space and a few short-term condos,” said Summers.
The developers are now completing new architectural renderings which will be soon available on their website.
The current website shows the development’s new logo which puts its name – The St. John Marina – front and center but still includes its original moniker – The Yacht Club at Summer’s End. The website also refers to the project as “St. John’s only marina” and allows users to request a slip for future reservations.
The current website, which includes a drawing of the docks of the marina, is online here.
Developers face legal challenges
The plan for the shoreline development had to be modified after two of the parcels included in the initial proposal were no longer available for lease. Summer’s End does not own any of the land on which it proposes to build.
The loss of the lease is one of the complicating factors in the permitting of the project. Summers said the developers have obtained approved Coastal Zone Management permits for both the land and water portions of the project, but Silverman disagrees.
Save Coral Bay has challenged the initial permit approved by the STJ CZM Board as well as an appeal to the Board of Land Use Appeals and, in conjunction with the Virgin Islands Conservation Society, has filed a lawsuit in the Virgin Islands Superior Court.
“The Board of Land Use Appeals decision required that the separate land and water permits be combined. At a minimum this would require SEG [Summer’s End Group, the project’s developers] to go back to CZM for a hearing on a combined permit,” he said.
“Furthermore, the existing approval for the land permit was based on parcels which SEG no longer controls, and this too would require going back to CZM. And the storm water mitigation which SEG proposed to CZM and which factored into the CZM decision is no longer being done since it required work on parcels no longer controlled by SEG. Finally, it is incorrect to say that SEG has a water permit – what they have is a recommendation from CZM that is not valid unless approved by the governor and ratified by the Legislature, neither of which have happened.”
Summers acknowledged that court challenges have slowed the process, and that conditions since Hurricane Irma will require the developers to have further discussions with CZM officials. However, she maintains that the island’s need for recovery makes the proposed project even more critical.
“Our partners, local families and those in the States, are very, very, very excited about this project,” she said. She declined to mention by name the partners other than businessman Robert O’Connor Jr., who has served as senator-at-large and chairman of the Virgin Islands Port Authority.
Documents obtained by Silverman under the Freedom of Information Act show that while over 20,000 individuals communicated their opposition to the project to the Army Corps, the Corps only received nine letters in support of the project.
Editor’s note: A following story will examine a new non-profit organization founded by Summers called the St. John Culture and Heritage Foundation.
Shared content for Virgin Islands Source and St. John Tradewinds.