Federal agencies suggest several changes to plan for proposed marina in Coral Bay


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ST. THOMAS - Two federal agencies have submitted recommendations to amend plans for the proposed St. John marina in Coral Bay.

The V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources sought the opinions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in letters addressed to each agency dated June 25.

While NOAA recommended further study of environmental impacts before the DPNR's Coastal Zone Management Commission issues a permit to the Summer's End Group for the marina, the Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that the CZM permit in its current form be rejected.

Both agencies said federal permits would not be issued unless a number of key issues are addressed.

The CZM Commission currently is considering a proposal for the marina after a public hearing Aug. 20 on St. John, during which a majority of public attendees vehemently opposed the marina because of concerns about the size, environmental impact and the cultural shift that could result in the community.

A handful of supporters, most of them from government agencies such as the Economic Development Agency and the V.I. Tourism Department, expressed the need for further economic stimulus in the territory. A number of St. John business owners also showed their support.

The marina would include 145 slips, a mooring field with 12 mooring balls and an additional 75 moorings that would be overseen as a public-private partnership with DPNR to better manage resources within Coral Bay.

On land, improvements for the proposed marina complex would include 120 off-street parking spaces, a 56-seat restaurant, a Customs and Border Protection office, a marina office, marina engineering, marina security, fish and farmers markets, a crew shower and locker facilities.

DPNR received responses from the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA this month and last, respectively, each listing a number of changes that they recommend the developers of the marina, Summer's End Group, make before DPNR approves the permit application.

The agencies did approve certain portions of the plans, though both expressed concerns about the mitigation plan to protect the environment in and around Coral Bay, a small community on the east side of St. John.

Environmental concerns

Lisamarie Carrubba, a member of NOAA's Caribbean Steering Committee, sent a letter stating that the upland facilities are not an issue, that "a road already separates the majority of the proposed upland portion of the project from the water." Appropriate erosion control and stormwater management measures have been designed for during construction and operation of the project, Carrubba said.

However, NOAA noted that the project should be strictly monitored to ensure that no further contaminants are filtered into the bay.

"It may also be necessary to sample the ghut that runs through the site to determine whether this is the source of contamination rather than the project. Monitoring should include human fecal coliform bacteria and nitrogen compounds," Carrubba wrote, adding that tests should be conducted similarly for pesticides, depending on the developers' plans for landscaping.

NOAA is more concerned about the water environment, which Carrubba said is nothing new considering that it had the same concerns in 2006 when NOAA reviewed the plans for the other marina proposed for the same site.

"We continue to have concerns regarding the potential project impacts to seagrass beds and water quality in the bay," Carrubba wrote.

Seagrass impact

In response to the past permit application, NOAA recommended that the applicant explore further avoidance and minimization of project impacts to seagrass, including through alternatives, such as the construction of the marina at an alternative location.

"Instead, when Summer's End acquired the property, they proposed a larger project," Carrubba wrote. "While they have redesigned the project to incorporate grated decking and extend into deeper water away from shore in order to avoid the need to dredge, the project has gotten larger rather than smaller, resulting in greater impacts."

The impacts primarily will be to the seagrass, which is frequented by sea turtles, the letter states, and the marina project also will likely have greater implications for the water quality and corals in the area, Carrubba said.

Even if DPNR approves the permit application, Summer's End will have to provide much more information to obtain a federal permit, including an "adequate alternatives analysis," which lays out what the alternatives to this plan could be.

More data needed

Summer's End also will have to provide more current water quality data, more information on its hurricane plan, more information on its mooring and boating management plans and a sea turtle survey, among other items, 15 in total.

Carrubba noted that the National Marine Fisheries Service's Habitat Conservation Division had significant concerns about the project when NOAA received the 2006 plans. She urged DPNR to contact the division.

The Fish and Wildlife Service stated that DPNR should not accept the current proposal as is, and said it needs to better address various concerns, including the water quality, the health of nearby wetlands and the health of marine life in the bay, including the seagrass, according to a letter written by field supervisor Edwin Muniz.

The service estimated that as much as 8 acres of seagrass could be lost if DPNR approves the current plans submitted by Summer's End.

Mangroves

The mangroves in the area also could be lost, despite the applicant's statement that no wetlands are in the project site, and the aquatic sites in the area still are regulated by the Clean Water Act, Muniz wrote.

"DPNR and NOAA studies in the existing marina associated with Mangrove Lagoon in St. Thomas, show that long-term use, shading, leaching of antifouling compound and other impacts associated with marina operations, have converted the benthic marine areas adjacent to these marinas into areas of very low biological diversity," Muniz wrote.

Summer's End has insisted that it will relocate the seagrass that will be directly impacted by the driving of pilings for the marina, and that it will plant mangroves along the shoreline to stabilize the shore and increase water quality, the latter of which the letter did not criticize.

However, the plan to relocate the seagrass is inadequate, according to Muniz, who said that 8 of 16 acres still will be impacted.

"If the applicant cannot find additional in-kind or on-site mitigation opportunities, then they should consider out-of-kind, off-site or both," Muniz wrote.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is recommending five key changes to the plan: to further investigate the planting of mangroves, as the current plan lacks adequate detail; to further investigate compensatory mitigation plans, or plans to preserve the current eco-environment of the bay; to clarify how enforcement of the proposed mooring areas would be accomplished; to expand upon its Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasures Plan; and to consider adding bird perches or piles in the proposed area where seagrass will be relocated because birds provide natural fertilizer to seagrass areas, the letter stated.

"We recommend that a CZM permit for the proposed action not be issued until our concerns and recommendations area adequately addressed," Muniz wrote.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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