Developers and environmentalists vie for senators’ attention during Mandahl Bay tour
BY ALDETH LEWIN (DAILY NEWS STAFF)
Published: February 11, 2015
ST. THOMAS – Ten senators went down to Mandahl Bay on Tuesday to see with their own eyes the land Mandahl Bay Holdings wants to turn into a resort and marina.
They were met with dozens of opponents to the project, who followed the senators around as the lawmakers listened to the developers explain what they want to do in the area.
A local homeschool group with small children splashed and kayaked in the salt pond; teenage environmental activists challenged the developers on the impact such a development would have on the ecosystem; and a group dressed as Taino Indians set up tables with information about the ancestral natives of the islands.
Mandahl Bay Holdings has plans to build two hotels and a marina on the northside of St. Thomas, near and around Mahogany Run and incorporating Mandahl beach.
Standing on the beach, George Dudley, the attorney representing Mandahl Bay Holdings, told senators that the area is used as a drop-off point for human trafficking, drug trafficking and murder.
“The best thing for the area is development,” Dudley said.
A chorus of objections drowned out Dudley.
“Why would you want it if there are so many negatives?” Friends of Mandahl Bay member Sharon Hupprich said.
“You just don’t get it,” Mandahl Bay Holdings President Karl Blaha told the outraged crowd, shaking his head. “The environment is going to be improved.”
When someone shouted that the land is meant for the people, Blaha responded: “We own this land.”
Senators in the bush
The site visit by senators was organized by Sen. Janette Millin-Young, the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Agriculture and Planning.
Senators who spent the morning visiting Mandahl Bay were Jean Forde, Novelle Francis Jr., Justin Harrigan Sr., Almondo Liburd, Terrence Nelson, Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly, Clifford Graham, Tregenza Roach, Kurt Vialet and Millin-Young.
As senators traipsed around the beach and wetland areas, they asked a few questions of the developers and their representatives.
When asked how the fishermen who launch their boats from the salt pond area would be affected by the development, Springline Architects’ Tracy Roberts said the project includes a dinghy dock for the fishermen that will be available for use free of charge.
She said when dredging is done in the marina basin, it will impact the ecosystem.
“The fish will die, during the dredging,” she said. “However, once we’ve completed this, they will come back.”
She said the same goes for birds and other wildlife that likely will be scared away by construction but will return to the area when the work is finished.
An eye on the ecosystem
Roberts said the developers plan to hire consultants to do “resource gathering” to catalogue the natural resources on the property. That information will go into a master plan, which will have much more detail on exactly how the area will be developed.
The developers will avoid damaging the ecosystem wherever possible and will mitigate any damage that does have to occur, Roberts said.
At one point, she mentioned the “Save Mandahl Bay” documentary, made by Karl Callwood, that highlights the wildlife and unique environment of Mandahl. Roberts said the project’s environmental consultant, Amy Dempsey of BioImpact, saw the video and said it could have been shot at a number of areas around St. Thomas.
The crowd exploded in anger.
“There are only two ecosystems like this on the island, here and in Red Hook. You cannot record this anywhere else,” 16-year-old Jonisha Aubain said.
She suggested senators pay a visit to any of the other marinas around the island that were allowed to move in and destroy wetlands and mangrove lagoons to see how much of that wildlife came back.
“Let’s compare the difference,” Aubain said.
Details in flux
Several senators asked why the details of the project still seem to be changing.
Dudley said it costs a lot of money to move ahead with the more detailed planning and design, and that stage will not commence before the lease agreement is in place.
However, Dudley said he recognizes that senators want to see more details before approving the lease.
“We’re getting into a chicken or egg situation here,” Dudley said.
Blaha said he appreciates the concerns of the community, and the project is not taking the environmental concerns lightly.
“The work has just begun,” he said.
As the project moves ahead, there will be a number of federal and local permits that will have to be secured – all of which will require severe scrutiny, according to Blaha.
“We will have to comply with every requirement necessary,” he said.
The first 99-year lease, which the proposed lease would replace, was signed in 1964 by former Gov. Ralph Paiewonsky. That deal was for a developer to build a hotel on the nearby island of Hans Lollick and 150 homes and a marina at Mandahl Salt Pond. That project never got off the ground, and the lease has traded hands several times in the decades that followed.
The Hans Lollick piece was separated from the Mandahl lease and currently is owned by a different developer.
The latest developer, Mandahl Bay Holdings, applied in 2009 for land and water CZM applications that were met with strong opposition from the community.
More than 400 people attended a public CZM hearing on the two permit applications for the project in March 2009.
The CZM committee denied the permits, but the developers appealed the decision to the Board of Land Use Appeals, where it has languished without action ever since.
The developers of the revamped project, “Port of Mandahl,” said that appeal will be withdrawn and the project will submit brand new CZM applications if the lease is ratified by the Senate.