V.I. Supreme Court rules for St. Mark's

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ST. THOMAS - After eight years of legal battles, the V.I. Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling and found the St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church in the clear to build.

That is a good thing, because while the case was going through the appeal process, the Rev. Father Antonious Connor built the church anyway.

In 2002, the church bought three parcels in Estate Nazareth. The parcels were consolidated to meet the acerage requirement necessary to build a church in an R-1 zone, according to the Supreme Court opinion.

The deeds to the property purchased had restrictive covenants attached that limited construction to no more than one single dwelling. In April 2006, St. Mark's submitted an application for a major Coastal Zone Management permit to construct a church.

The permit allows St. Mark's Coptic Church to build a worship center and rectory on a little more than 1 acre off Vessup Lane. The 4,279-square-foot top floor will contain a church sanctuary that will seat 225, a baptism pool, crying room, classrooms and office space. A lower level with the same square footage will contain a fellowship hall, kitchen and crypt.

Several of the neighboring property owners testified against the proposal at a public hearing, including attorney Jeffrey Weiss, who became a public representative for the group of Vessup Lane residents who opposed the project.

The St. Thomas CZM Committee denied the permit application in July, 2006.

Weiss requested in writing that the government notify him if St. Mark's appealed the CZM decision, but that was not done.

St. Mark's appealed to the Board of Land Use Appeals and a public hearing was conducted in April 2007. The board reversed the CZM decision in July, 2007, but the neighbors did not know about it until two years later when the church posted a CZM permit number and began clearing the land.

A lawsuit was filed - first in federal court then in local court - by a number of residents in Estate Nazareth seeking a temporary restraining order against the church's construction and, ultimately, an injunction to stop the project altogether.

The lawsuit names the Board of Land Use Appeals, the St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church and the then-Department of Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Robert Mathes as defendants.

The civil suit filed in District Court argued that the church's property is located in a Virgin Islands tree boa habitat and construction could harm the snake and violate the federal Endangered Species Act. The plaintiffs also argued that the government did not provide the proper notification of Board of Land Use Appeals hearings and decisions and that the building of a church violates the restrictive deed covenants on the property.

After the restraining order was denied in federal court, Weiss - whose property borders the church's land and who is a named plaintiff and the attorney representing the other plaintiffs - filed an almost identical lawsuit in V.I. Superior Court. The new lawsuit did not include the issues regarding the federal protections for the tree boa, but the rest of the complaints were the same.

The Superior Court ruled in 2012 in favor of the church, finding that the deed covenants did not prohibit the construction of a church on the land.

Weiss appealed the lower court decision to the V.I. Supreme Court.

In the Supreme Court opinion, the justices found that because the covenant was put in place five years before the territory enacted its zoning laws, the covenant could not have intended to modify the R-1 zoning designation.

Additionally, the high court found that the covenant speaks to a "single dwelling" but does not expressly forbid the construction of a non-dwelling, it cannot prohibit the construction of the church.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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