St. John Tradewinds News

CZM Approves Reliance’s Modification Request; Friends of Coral Bay Group Alleges Foul Play

While the St. John Coastal Zone Manage-ment Committee took less than  half an hour to approve Reliance Housing Found-ation’s modification request to its major CZM permit for a Calabash Boom project on Thursday afternoon, February 22, the affordable housing provider still faces pending federal court proceedings.

St. John CZM Committee chairman Julien Harley and members Edmund Roberts, Gerald Hills, Andrew Penn and Madeline Sewer voted unanimously to approve Reliance’s modification request to remove the reverse osmosis plant from plans for its 72-unit low- and moderate-income housing development in Estate Calabash Boom.

Reliance plans to construct eight six-unit apartment buildings and 12 duplex town homes on about eight acres in Calabash Boom.

TRO in Effect Still
A neighborhood group named The Friends of Coral Bay, represented by Attorney Alan Smith, is leading opposition to the density of the development and the modification.

The group won a temporary restraining order against Reliance before District Court Judge Curtis Gomez last week, which is in effect until Monday, February 26, according to Reliance’s local representative, St. Thomas Attorney Treston Moore.

A preliminary injunction hearing is expected to be scheduled shortly.

Despite the St. John CZM Committee’s modification request approval, Reliance officials will not begin development until the case is finished, explained Moore.

“We won’t do anything without giving the court notice of our intentions,” Moore said.

“We have legal proceedings we need to address before we can proceed with anything,” said Florida-based Attorney Mimi Salls, who also represents Reliance. “We need to see what we can do with the court case to get this project back on track.”

Small Change
Smith had hoped to testify at Thursday’s modification request hearing, but CZM Commissioner Robert Mathes determined that the request to remove the water portion of Reliance’s permit, which was originally approved in December 2006, did not “substantially alter the scope” of the original permit and was therefore a minor request.

“This is a decision meeting and there will be no testifiers,” Harley said at the meeting after reading Mathes’ determination.

Smith did not agree with Mathes’ ruling.

“I feel it is inappropriate that we could not testify,” said Smith. “We feel this was a substantial modification because they can’t provide adequate water to their planned tenants. This meeting should have been a hearing to consider the merits of the modification.”

“Slipshod” Tests
Instead of using a r/o plant to supply potable water to the roughly 278 inhabitants of the planned $51 million development, the developer will now use an existing well on the property and roof-catchment systems to provide drinking water.

The Friends, however, contend that Reliance’s scientific tests on the existing wells were “slipshod and unprofessional,” and the developer will not be able to provide adequate potable water to its tenants.

In a letter to Harley dated February 20, Smith outlines a number of serious engineering and environmental problems with Reliance’s modification request.

The developer overestimated the amount of rainwater which can be collected and the developer’s plan to recycle treated sewage into residents’ bathrooms is potentially dangerous to their health, according to the letter. 

Omitted Information
In a second letter to Harley dated February 21, Smith contends that Reliance omitted information from an independent tester which stated the well water at the site will be brackish and contains fecal coliform bacteria.

“Based on documents obtained from the applicant, it appears that certain critical information was not disclosed to the CZM Division or the Com-mittee when the request for modification of Major Coastal Zone Permit CZJ-5-05 was submitted,” according to Smith’s letter. “We believe the information contained in these documents conclusively demonstrates that the use of the well or wells as the primary source of potable water at Calabash Boom is not feasible, would endanger the health of residents and violate the Virgin Islands Safe Drinking Water Act.”

During the fact finding phase of the District Court case, Friends received a copy of the well water test results conducted by PolyCaribe Water Systems which included a previously omitted paragraph stating the water is brackish and the well will only yield 5,000 gallons per day (gpd), instead of Reliance’s projected 10,080 gpd. 

Fecal Coliform in Well Water
The letter also includes a second document dated July 18, 2006, purportedly by Amy Dempsey, president of BioImpact, Inc. to Reliance which states that the well water contains fecal coliform bacteria and high levels of iron, magnesium and chloride.

“If this letter and the attachments concern the same well that was tested by PolyCaribe in May 2005, the well water at Calabash Boom is not suitable for human use and cannot be considered ‘potable’ water,” according to Smith’s letter. “If the test data is from another well on the property, such data is strong evidence the well tested by PolyCaribe in May 2005 is similarly polluted. Finally, the July 18, 2006 letter further suggests that the applicant has knowingly and intentionally withheld information from the Committee.”

Weighing Options
While a preliminary injunction hearing is expected to be scheduled in district court shortly,  the Friends have not decided their next step.

“We have to decide what our next step is going to be,” said Smith. “We have some legal and some administrative options. We must decide which options we want to pursue.”