Two weeks ago, when residents of several East End housing communities got wind of plans to locate a floating restaurant and bar in Christmas Cove, the reaction was, "You’ve got to be kidding me!" according to Robert Fagenson.
Since then, Fagenson and dozens of others have not just rallied to protest the plan, but have with the assistance of Tom Bolt & Associates, PC, formed a non-profit organization, commissioned a study by the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) and are circulating petitions in anticipation of a public hearing on Tuesday.
The group, known as the Friends of Christmas Cove Inc., formally announced its establishment at a news conference Sunday, March 2nd at Robert’s American Grille in Cowpet Bay. Group president Fagenson, and others outlined their objections to the bar and restaurant plan by WT Enterprises LLC and distributed a summary document of the UVI study they commissioned on the Christmas Cove ecosystem.
The group intends to present the full study Tuesday at a Coastal Zone Management (CZM) Committee hearing on the WT Enterprises permit application in hopes the permit will be denied. A decision on the permit is expected March 26.
WT Enterprises is applying to moor a 115-foot, three-story vessel known as the Leylon Sneed just off the privately-owned St. James Island, about a mile southeast of St. Thomas. An 80-by-5 foot dock would be attached to the port side of the vessel for dinghy and small boat mooring.
Owners of the Sneed, Curtis Penn and Delbert Parsons of St. John, claim boaters do not want to travel to the William Thornton, known as the Willy T, located off Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands, to enjoy a floating restaurant.
The Willy T is known for having provided incentives to its customers to jump naked into the water from its third floor. However, Parsons told the Source last month that the Sneed is not going to be "crazy like the Willie T." Parsons did say that he and his partner plan to include a nightclub, but stressed that it would not be loud.
Contacted Sunday, Curtis Penn said he and Parsons were advised by their attorney to withhold further comment until the Tuesday hearing.
"Maybe there’s a fitting place for a floating bar and restaurant somewhere in the (U.S.) V.I.," Fagenson said at the news conference. "But…if there’s one thing that appears to be as clear as the waters of Christmas Cove, putting the Leylon Sneed smack in the middle of it is wrong."
Christmas Cove lies within the St. James Marine Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary, home to endangered species of coral, seagrass and turtles. It also lies within a narrow passageway used by commercial ferries taking passengers from Charlotte Amalie to St. John. In addition, children learning to sail from the neighboring St. Thomas Yacht Club use the cove to train.
Members of the newly formed citizens group told reporters Tuesday that the presence of the Leylon Sneed and the dozens of power boats it would attract would not only present a safety concern as well as concerns about noise, but pose a threat to the sensitive marine environment that earned the cove its status as a sanctuary.
In an interview Friday, Assistant Director of Enforcement for the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Roberto Tapia, said it is prohibited to locate a commercial establishment within the bounds the St. James Marine Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary.
"There are rules and regulations for sanctuaries, which is: no commercial activities in a sanctuary," said Tapia. "None whatsoever. That’s the rule."
Asked whether that meant the CZM permit would be denied, Tapia replied, "That’s a question that will have to be weighed through until the application process is finished." However, he added that the sanctuary falls under federal protection, and he said local laws must conform.
Rick Nemeth, director of the Center for Marine and Environmental Studies at UVI, issued a statement presented Sunday by the citizens’ group saying he personally observed more than 170 colonies of the endangered staghorn and elkhorn coral in Christmas Cove while researching the area on behalf of Friends of Christmas Cove. In addition, Nemeth said he saw 50 species of reef fish and two sea turtles feeding on seagrass, another endangered species protected by the sanctuary status.
Nemeth is expected to present the results of his team’s study at the Tuesday hearing. In addition, Friends of Christmas Cove is circulating petitions opposing the plan which they hope to present Tuesday.
The meeting is open to the public. It begins at 6 p.m. on the second floor of the Port Authority building, just east of the Cyril E. King Airport.