Nov. 19, 2004 The standing-room-only crowd packed into the V.I. Port Authority conference room Thursday evening had one thing in common a concern for the future of Hassel Island.
The meeting, which frequently became emotional and boisterous, was assembled to hear the public's views on a proposal before VIPA by Atlantic Tele-Network to construct a 93-foot communications tower atop Signal Hill at the south end of the island. The tower would be a monopole masthead monument to provide cell phone and cable television relay, especially for the downtown area. In return for permission to construct the tower, ATN would fund a restoration project at the site.
Would the tower be an aesthetically pleasing and welcoming symbol at the head of Charlotte Amalie harbor? Or would it be a blotch on the pristine harbor? Frenchtown resident Steve Cerge said, "Call it a gem, a sapphire, whatever you like I call it an eyesore."
Darlan Brin, VIPA executive director, made clear several times during the more than three-hour meeting that no application was before the VIPA board. He stressed the meeting had been called to gain public input on the proposal.
This is the second time the proposal has come up. In February 2003 the VIPA board voted to cancel its lease with Atlantic Tele-Network for 2,000 square feet of property at Signal Hill atop Hassel Island where the company planned to erect a communications tower at least 80 feet high. Brin said at the time that the area was not zoned for such construction.
The room Thursday was filled with several members of the St. Thomas Historical Trust, a smattering of young Virgin Islanders, government representatives, many private sector business people and individual citizens. The Senate was represented by Basil Ottley, Sen. Louis Hill's chief of staff, and representatives from Sens. Lorraine Berry and Shawn-Michael Malone's offices.
The room was divided, though not equally, on whether the tower would be a boon or a blight.
Sebastiano Paiewonsky-Cassinelli led a chorus of voices who clearly see it as a blight. He was sharply critical of ATN's motives. He said the plan attempts to conceal the size and visual impact of the proposed structure. "The plans, as submitted, portray a tower that is only slightly taller than the original historic mast. In fact," he said, "it would be twice as high."
"By defacing the pristine beauty and historical authenticity … the tower would cause irreparable harm," he said.
Paiewonsky-Cassinelli, whose family has a home on Hassel Island, requested that VIPA "reject the proposal by ATN, and its wholly owned subsidiary, Choice Communications LLC., to have VIPA seek a zoning variance" to build the tower.
He said he favored a plan by the National Park Service for a Hassel Island National Park. He said the NPS has stated its commitment to the preservation of that park. He also said there are "other interested parties willing to contribute" to restoration of the park "without any motivation of private gain." He did not name the parties.
Several people in the audience pointed out that Cornelius Prior, who owns ATN, also owns Coral World, an ecological marine park,and is a boon to the community. They asked why would he do something to harm the community.
Edward "Harmon" Killebrew, a 30-year advocate for Hassel Island restoration, sharply disagreed with Paiewonsky-Cassinelli. However, he asked that the community "come together. We need to get the work done."
Wanda Mills, architect and urban planner, defended the tower, whose design she said she had hastily put together. She stressed that the design is a concept only. It is not set in stone. She sees the project as a "boon." She sees it as a way to get something moving after 26 years of disregard.
Killebrew, Mills and Rik Van Rensssaler in September formed the Hassel Island Preservation Trust, which seeks to restore and preserve the history of the island. The trust has partnered with the University of the Virgin Islands' Community Engagement and Lifelong Learning Center to provide a Tour Guide Training Course set on Hassel Island, which Mills teaches. (See "UVI Students Learning to Guide Tours on Hassel Island").
The group wants to act now, after what Van Rensssaler called "26 years of benign neglect by the National Park Service."
Mills said she was fully aware of the appearance of the tower in her rendering, which was presented before the group. She said the final rendering would be done after public input, and with a "full-fledged designer."
Gazing at the group of preservationists gathered together, Mills said, "These people sitting here in opposition tonight are my mentors Edith Woods, Alton Adams I have worked with them for years [on the Historical Trust]. Now, we are on opposite sides of the fence, but they continue to be my mentors."
"We are courting an investor who will help. Now, all of the sudden, everyone wants to do something. Where were you for the last 26 years?" she asked, receiving a solid roomful of applause.
Mills emphasized that she was willing to mitigate the tower: "The tower is a conception awaiting further public input, We want to develop the site. We don't want to impose our will on Hassel Island. It would be a welcoming device."
Mills also showed photographs of other similar harbor symbols including the La Cruceta del Vigia lookout tower in Ponce, Puerto Rico, or the famous Cristo, Redentor Monument in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which defines its harbor. The structure would bear the U.S. and territorial flags with night-time decorative lighting proposed.
Her remarks were met with derision of some in the audience who claimed, no matter what, "it would be ugly, ugly."
Mills held her ground. She said the important thing is to get to work on restoration projects on the island. Killebrew backed her up: "Vines are growing around some of these structures and suffocating them."
Mills said, "The condition of the island's historic sites is an embarrassment."
Alton Adams, whose grandfather owned a building on Hassel Island, read a statement from the St. Thomas Historical Trust: "The trust opposes any commercial development on Hassel Island," he said. "It supports the park's plan for restoring the island property." Gazing at a photograph of his grandfather's building, Adams recalled childhood memories of visits to the island.
Many residents, several from French town, expressed a close personal relationship to the island. Cerge, who is vehemently opposed to the tower, said, "I know every square inch of that island. I have been going over there since I was a child." Cerge questioned ATN's motives. "I wonder how much the V.I. Government would make on it. Would there be microwave links? Would he [Prior] rent space?"
A young mother made an impassioned plea for constructing the tower and bringing more technology to St. Thomas. "I was born and raised here," she said, "and I have never heard anything about Hassel Island, except it's a 'rock out there.' My 12-year-old son doesn't learn about it in school. If somebody is willing to come in and put in a communications tower and bring new technology and help restore the island, I say 'great, bring him on.' I wonder what all the influential people who are sitting here tonight have done for me? Where have you been?" she asked.
"I love St. Thomas, and I hate to see buildings falling down. The Maduro building collapsed from neglect," she said. "Eventually, something will be done, they say. When?"
The park service, which owns 98 percent of Hassel Island, has had a plan for more than 15 years for the entire park, including Hassel Island, but it has never been
implemented. Under the guidance of Art Fredericks, the new park superintendent, the plan is being introduced at public hearings.
Another concern Thursday night was the 16-foot-wide swath of road climbing Hassel Island's Signal Hill, whose appearance caused a rift in the community. The access road was built by VIPA with the permission of the perk service, which owns the land.
Killebrew said Friday that mitigating the road is first on the Hassel Island Trust's agenda. "Next Tuesday we are going over there with DPNR to make some assessments," he said. Culverts need to be dug, and much mitigation work remains. Killebrew said he doesn't know where his project stands now financially. "I will have to wait and see Mr. Prior's reaction to this meeting," he said Friday morning.
Killebrew, doing business as Island Treasures Co., has a lease for 14,828 square feet, and Prior has the balance of the area, some 2,000 square feet, for which his company still pays rent to VIPA. That is the only acreage VIPA owns on the island.
Brin said the VIPA staff would weigh the public's reaction, and based on that, would make a recommendation to the VIPA board. "It's a policy decision," he said. Should the staff recommend the tower and the board approve it, it would still have to go through a zoning hearing by the Senate and need approval from the governor. Brin said he welcomes written comment as well. He said statements can be submitted to VIPA through Dec. 31.
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