Coral Bay in St. John is Threatened by a Mega Marina
September 8, 2014
We’ve received lots of inquiries from residents and lovers of St. John and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the past weeks regarding a mega marina called Summer’s End that is pending approval for construction in Coral Bay. There is great concern for the environmental impact of the project on the local reefs and species (such as the endangered Green Sea Turtle), as well as belief that the regulatory bodies and government officials whose job it is to safeguard these habitats have vested interests in seeing the construction go through. We encourage our community to form their own opinions regarding this mega development in the pristine waters of St. John. To help inform the debate, provided below are direct unattributed testaments from concerned St. John residents.
Mission Blue believes in the protection of pristine, vibrant marine ecosystems to preserve the value that the ocean offers all life on earth instead of using their resources for short-term economic gain. If you want to help in the fight to prevent this development from taking root, consider supporting the Coral Bay Community Council. You can make donations, offer your time or contact them with questions here.
In the fight to reverse ocean decline, every voice counts. Don’t be shy to add your own.
The community’s panic stems from the fact that the principals in the mega yacht marina have been trying for many years to get it permitted, each time ever larger. They are confident this time primarily because the three standing members of the CZM (Coastal Zone Management) board are all childhood friends with the acting chairman of the Virgin Islands Port Authority, Bob O’Connor, a key principal. (It was Bob O’Connor and one of the CZM members who secured leases on the property — not all three CZM members. The member who has an interest recused himself leaving only two members to decide the outcome. The recused member sat in on the meeting so there would be a quorum.) They have secured 50-year leases on all the bordering properties.
Secondly, one of the CZM members is an investor in the project. The board only has these members instead of the usual five. The Governor has refused to appoint any others that have volunteered. He also supports this marina.
Everyone here knows there will be no economic gains – the excuse they all are using; in fact a genuine case can be made for significant economic damage. Lost in all of this, to our outrage, is the bay/harbor will forever be destroyed. Furthermore no matter what evidence is submitted, the CZM members do not have to read it or give it any credence.
To: J.P. Oriol, Acting Commissioner, DPNR, CZM Commissioners and Staff Re: Testimony on CZJ-3-14(L) and CZJ-4-14(W), Summer’s End Marina
I was born and raised on St. John. I have a BA in Marine and Environmental Science from the College of the V.I. and a Masters in Biological Oceanography from the University of Puerto Rico. I worked for DCCA/DPNR Division of Fish and Wildlife for 18 years as Chief of Environmental Education and Endangered Species and recently retired after 14 years with the V.I. National Park and V.I. Coral Reef National Monument as Chief of Resource Management and Science.
Does Coral Bay need or want a marina? I would say yes, in some realistic size and location. It would provide for those that want to be on a dock for a short term. It would offer some services that many vessel owners would like to have at the east end of our island. Does Coral Bay need a Summer’s End type marina? Absolutely not! Is Coral Bay’s marine ecology resilient enough to withstand the construction and chronic impacts from a Summer’s End marina? Very likely not! And therein lie my greatest concerns. During my lifetime I have watched Coral Bay grow and change (from just a few houses and a couple of small fishing boats along the shoreline) as many residences have been built on the surrounding hillsides and many boats have taken up residence in the bay. All of this has produced impacts to the rich, diverse marine environment of Coral Bay. But much of this can be mitigated and groups such as Sharon Coldren and the CBCC have put in great amounts of effort and have made great strides in working to do so. They are to be commended.
Although I have great concerns with the potential social changes to Coral Bay from such a proposed development, I will confine my comments on the proposed marina primarily to the marine environment, as that is where my training and experience lie. To begin with, Coral Bay faces south/southeast into the predominant trade winds. As such, wind driven surface currents flow into the bay with most outflow being back out as bottom currents. There is some tidal influence but this is the predominant pattern. This makes for somewhat restricted water circulation as well as eventual contact of surface waters with benthic habitats. Not the best situation but Coral Bay, in its natural state, is adapted to and in equilibrium with this system. Enter the idea of a 145-slip marina with 1,333 pilings, approximately 7.5 acres of overhead docks, walkways and a large assortment of vessels. Many of these vessels will likely be of larger size with deep draft, all with various types of anti-fouling paints on their bottoms, and all with the potential for the discharge of a multitude of pollutants into the surrounding waters. Fueling and other marine services add additional potential for discharges. Of particular concern is that this structure of pilings and vessels will only further restrict water flow and circulation in the bay, thus exacerbating potential impacts to the marine environment.
Boats generate a lot of waste. In spite of best intentions (I know, I lived on a boat for 6.5 years) stuff goes overboard. Be it deliberate septic discharge or dish washing water, minor maintenance or simply washing down the decks, pollutants go in the water. Multiply that by 145 boats and it becomes significant. Bottom paints range from relatively benign to extremely toxic (tributyltin (TBT)-containing paints are still available in the British Virgin Islands. Who is going to check all the boats?) and all of them function by gradually releasing small amounts of the toxic components that inhibit marine fouling. Again, multiply that by 145 boats at one location and it can be significant. And above water, if only a portion of the vessels start their engines or run their generators with either diesel or a gas/oil mix, the resulting exhaust becomes an air quality issue to environments downwind of the marina. Concentration of vessels leads to concentration of pollutants – no getting around it. And this can only lead to damage of the sensitive natural resources in Coral Bay.
Elimination of at least 2.8 acres of sea grasses by shading (the estimate in the Environmental Assessment Report – probably very conservative) can destabilize at least 2.8 acres of sea bottom by removing the sea grasses that trap and hold bottom sediments and help maintain water clarity/quality. This will also enable storm waves to suspend large amounts of exposed sediments that were formerly held in place by sea grass. And one cannot overlook the impacts to endangered green turtle populations and other species that forage on this sea grass. The proposal to mitigate this loss by “replanting” sea grass elsewhere is not sound. If sea grass is not growing someplace there is a reason it is not growing there. Planting sea grass there will not work. This is not adequate or sustainable mitigation. The proposed location, for any marine development, is far less than ideal, being exposed to wave conditions from the south. Almost every time we have a major storm where do a number of boats end up on shore, some of them quite large? What does this say about wave conditions at this location? And when the docks, and presumably some boats, break loose during a storm, what collateral damage will they do to the marine environment and the downwind mangroves?
A much better place for a small marina, certainly more suitable for the character of Coral Bay, would be in the protected waters of the northeastern, inner cove of Coral Bay probably with Mediterranean style shoreline boardwalks with stern-to-docking offset from any mangroves. This area has no sea grass that I know of and could provide the level of services needed by Coral Bay without turning it into a South Florida or Yacht Haven Grande type atmosphere.
And is this just the tip of the iceberg with this group? What about the seven-phase full re-development plan for Coral Bay that was written in 2012? It all appears aimed at turning over the development and management of Coral Bay to an outside entity with no demonstrated ability to do so or real sensitivity or understanding of the people and environment that make Coral Bay the special place it is. To me, that is unconscionable and atrocious!! I strongly urge the Committee to seriously consider the full ramifications of permitting such a thing to happen to Coral Bay.
Brief synopsis of where we are in the process:
1. Applicants have filed with the Coastal Zone Management board; public hearing was conducted on Aug 20; public comment period is now closed … CZM decision meeting will be sometime around end September (should be within 30 days of Aug 20 but time period may be extended a bit until the two eligible CZM commissioners are back on St John).
2. Application could be approved, approved with conditions, or denied by CZM. In any of those cases it could be appealed within 45 days to another VI board, and then following that appeal to a judicial appeal. 3. The Governor will need to approve the use of the submerged Trust Lands, and the Legislature will need to ratify the Governor’s approval. All of this (if it gets that far) will probably happen after the new territorial government is elected and seated in January.
4. In parallel, an application has been filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I don’t believe they are actively processing it yet, and it has many hurdles to overcome before they can even deem it complete. NOAA and NFWS have both expressed strong reservations.
5. The location is quite possibly the worst place to locate a marina in Coral Bay Harbor – on the windward side, exposed to the southeast to open ocean, atop lush sea grass beds, prime marine turtle forage habitat, several federally listed endangered coral species within the project area … and in this totally unsuited location the developers want to extend a pier almost 1000 feet into the harbor, drive 1333 pilings into unknown substrate, provide slips for mega yachts up to 210 feet in length, construct 145 slips for 10,000 feet of boats. Dolphins are regularly seen in and about Coral Bay, migratory whales pass just outside the harbor, and in the adjacent water of Hurricane Hole is found one of the most healthy and prolific coral nurseries in all of the Virgin Islands – a real treasure. Hurricane Hole is protected by the National Park, but threatened by the pollution, sediments and disruption of the aquatic environment that this marina poses.
6. The sonic impact of pile driving, while intensely annoying to humans, can be life threatening to marine turtles, dolphins, and other species. It will undoubtedly severely impact our local economy, which is almost entirely based on the appeal of Coral Bay as a quiet, laid-back, ecotourism destination.
7. Coral Bay harbor, although impacted by sediments from upland construction, still has excellent water quality. It has been declared “Essential Fish Habitat,” with the marine meadows and fringing mangroves providing nursery habitat for lemon sharks and blacktip sharks. U.S. Fish and Wildlife has specifically recommended that the CZM permit not be issued for the current application. The construction and operation of this proposed mega yacht marina would irreparably damage Coral Bay, very likely cause impacts to the adjacent National Park waters, and have unknown but potentially significant impacts to the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument.
All in all, an ill-conceived project promoted by off-island investors whose objective is to exploit a small corner of paradise for their own selfish interests.