|By Daniel Shea, The Virgin Islands Daily
News, St. ThomasMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
June 9, 2010--ST. CROIX -- Only two senators -- one not a member of the committee in session -- were present for the entirety of a Senate hearing Tuesday on the ratification of a permit for what would be the largest resort in the territory, making it impossible to vote on the $1 billion project.
Representatives of Robin Bay Realty testified before the Senate on their proposal to build the four-hotel Seven Hills Beach Resort with a combined 780 rooms on the southeast shore of St. Croix, but no action could be taken.
With only two members of the Committee on Planning and Environmental Protection present -- Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone and Sen. Michael Thurland -- a quorum was not met. Four committee members are required to form a quorum.
Only Malone and non-committee member Sen. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly were in the chambers for the hearing's duration, while Thurland and Sen. Usie Richards were present for large sections.
Also on the committee are Sens. Sammuel Sanes, Patrick Sprauve, Carlton Dowe, Aldah Donastorg Jr., and Alvin Williams Jr., according to the Legislature's website.
The lack of interest from the members was troublesome to one speaker, Percival Edwards -- especially given the massive investment and potential jobs the resort represents.
The project entails a four-phase construction plan spanning more than a decade and is expected to produce almost 900 jobs each year and cost $1.1 billion -- $420 million in employee wages, according to the developers.
"I think it's an abomination that our senators cannot be here," said Edwards, who backed the project.
Senator Richards also expressed concern about the lack of attendance. He said St. Croix has been hearing about development for too long without seeing it.
"As a Crucian, I'm sick and tired of waiting for new hotel rooms," he said.
One of the three major St. Croix resorts that has been in the planning stages for the better part of a decade, the Seven Hills Beach Resort received the approval of the St. Croix Coastal Zone Management Committee in May 2009. After negotiating an annual fee of $11,426 with the Department of Planning and Natural Resources for a submerged land area, the permit was then forwarded on to the governor in January.
The governor signed off on the project in March, said David Kagan, a stakeholder and representative of Robin Bay Realty.
"All told, we have actively been working on the Robin Bay project since August 2000," Kagan said.
While he said a vote Tuesday would have been nice, in the grand scheme of the project, "it's further delayed in a minor sense."
Kagan said he was hopeful action could be taken at a committee meeting June 18 on St. John or June 23 on St. Thomas.
The proposed resort sits on a 618-acre site crossing into four estates on Robin Bay on St. Croix's East End, just west of Divi Carina Bay Resort.
Its plan calls for four hotels totaling 870 rooms. By comparison, Divi Carina's beachside hotel has 180 rooms, Carambola Beach Resort has 157 rooms and the Buccaneer Resort has 138 rooms.
Mariott's Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort on St. Thomas is currently the biggest hotel in the territory with close to 500 rooms.
While the rooms at Seven Hills would be divided among four different hotels, each hotel would be bigger than any currently built on the island.
In addition, the project includes 746 condominiums and single-family homes, a casino, an 18-hole golf course, a multi-purpose conference and sports center and a water park.
Including the golf course, close to half the land is slated to be developed.
The massive influx in the number of hotel rooms was an issue for Thurland, who wanted to know whether the group had been in contact with any airlines to determine whether there would be enough tourists to fill them.
Kagan said he spoke with airlines' marketing departments, who said they would need at least a year's notice to boost the amount of traffic. The group also hopes to increase the number of hubs that run direct flights to the island.
"It's been, 'You let us know when you have your permits in place and you begin construction and we'll deliver the guests,' " Kagan told senators.
It was a similar response when he was asked about financing and hotel chains.
There are potential financiers and hoteliers interested, but all are awaiting approval of the necessary permits before committing, he said.
The environmental concerns were few and centered on strengthening the permit's language to require certain aspects of the plan, like the creation of a 65-acre forestry preserve and mitigation plans to lessen environmental impact.
"I agree with what they've said, but I want to be able to hold their feet to the fire," said St. Croix Environmental Association Executive Director Paul Chakroff.
Architect Tracy Roberts and environmental consultant Amy Dempsey were present throughout to address questions of environmental concern.
Some of those dealt with the proposed reverse osmosis water treatment plant, which will provide 1.5 million gallons of water per day and discharge 2.2 million gallons per day. Intake and discharge lines will run out beyond the barrier reef nearly a mile and will be constructed to affect as little marine life as possible, Dempsey said.
Senator Malone said he believes they are "a good group of developers," but said the island has been burned by developers in the past.
To amend the current permit to make the nature preserve and mitigation steps mandatory might require that the group reapply for the permit, warned CZM legal counsel Winston Brathwaite, which might tack on another year to the process.
Still, Kagan remained hopeful and said he was confident the project would move forward within the month. At best, he said, construction could begin early next year, with a two-year construction phase before heads touch pillows.
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