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Setting the Record Straight


Dear Source:

I have read with interest the recent article in the Daily News (2/27/08) by Ms. Lynn Freehill regarding the permit "after the fact" for the wooden dock on Great St. James Island. As the caretaker of Great St. James for 30 years and the contractor for all development up until about 1997, I feel that I should set the record straight with a few comments.
Although the Senate Committee on Planning and the Environment has already ratified a permit to bring the owner into compliance with the law, it is important for me to point out for the record that as the owner's representative I was informed at the time of the docks' construction that a permit was deemed unnecessary. The reason was that the wooden dock was to be the same size as the preceding floating dock and to be placed in precisely the same location, and that it was unlikely that any environmental change had occurred in the past two years since the floating dock had been approved. I do not recall which governmental body or individual made that decision. But the recent claim of the owner's attorney that the owner had not violated Virgin Islands law by constructing the dock is correct. In any case, in view of the Senate's recent action to ratify a permit retroactively, that whole issue is now water under the dock, so to speak.
What concerns me here is CZM's and the Senate's possible ignorance or blithe dismissal of a substantial expansion of the dock in the late '90's, which was not mentioned in the Daily News article. For it appears to me that a permit was not granted specifically for that expansion. If an application had been submitted for a permit, then the lack of an original permit for the dock would have come to CZM's attention and questions would have been raised at that time instead of waiting until ten years later.
This expansion occurred after I was no longer working for the owner because he had converted the estate I had built for his family into a hotel. And the expansion was no minor matter. It increased the area of the dock by about 25 per cent. This was due to the addition of approximately 60 square feet of decking added onto only one side, the west side. The old deck was completely ripped off by workers and replaced with longer planks that jutted out over the water with bracing. In short, it was no longer the same dock in size, shape, or structure as the original wooden dock. This was the time when a permit was sorely needed, especially in a locale with powerful uplift from waves and exposure to hurricanes in Pillsbury Sound.
In short, the Senate Committee on Planning and Environmental Protection seems to have been focusing recently on the wrong time period and the wrong violation with regard to the original permit for the wooden dock. The real issue is the expansion in the late '90's and whether it was a violation of law. Is it fair to hold everybody's feet to the fire except the owner of Great St. James by simply ratifying the expansion after the fact, if that is what has occurred? What kind of message does that send? Moreover, since the fee for a submerged land lease depends upon the size of the dock, the Senate and CZM might wish to take into account the square footage of the expansion, if they have not already done so.
On a more ominous note, all concerned should be aware that the dock is in a parlous state. In the mid-90's (only a few years after construction) I noticed that it was leaning toward the west because of the constant lateral flow of water driven by the wind from east to west along the shore and pushing against the pilings. This problem was probably also due to larger vessels tending to dock on the west side (the leeward side). This side is favored by captains because the dock serves as a partial barrier against the wind and current from the east. This means that larger vessels often tug at the dock on the west side as the wind pushes them away from the dock, while incoming waves from Pillsbury Sound make the vessels waggle on their dock lines like vexed dogs on leashes. Unfortunately, the large number of new planks (heavy, pressure-treated 2X6's) that were extended out over the dock's west side for the entire 60 foot length of the structure as part of the expansion greatly increased the weight on the very side toward which the dock was already leaning. (The tilt of the pilings is visible from the surface of the water out in front of the dock. But evidently nobody looked.)
One day the dock might simply fall over. I'm not sure that CZM or the Senate would want to be responsible for allowing this to occur. Making the dock legal as it is so that more money can be generated for the government treasury, as Senator Alvin Williams Jr. has favored, might be a laudable cause under normal circumstances. But if it results in property damage and cluttering of the cove with boards and exposed nails, personal injuries, or even drownings, and the government is found liable, I somehow doubt that the extra revenue would be worth it.
Incidentally, the wooden dock was deliberately designed by me to be uncommonly high and narrow (four feet) so that it would present the least resistance to hurricane swells from Pillsbury Sound, which I had observed with awe on many occasions while living on the island from 1968 to 1999. As a result, during Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 the dock was the only one in the entire eastern area of St. Thomas (including Little St. James) that was not severely damaged or destroyed. Unfortunately, the proven effectiveness of building a narrow dock was completely undermined by expanding the dock's width in the late '90's, and especially with an overhang that catches the wave crests rolling in from Pillsbury Sound during disturbed weather. This outcome of the expansion, together with the aggravation of the dock's tilt, means that the expansion was not exactly the brightest of ideas. And the lack of CZM oversight owing to the owner's possible failure to obtain a permit has made the situation a first class pistarcle. In fact, it resurrects the question of whether to destroy the dock and start all over in compliance with law and common sense.
If I can be of further assistance, please contact me.

Sam Sieber, Ph.D.
Navasota, Texas

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