Atta Misbeh. By. V.I. LEGISLATURE
A decision by the Department of Planning and Natural Resources to turn down brothers Atta and Mohamed Jihad Misbeh’s proposal to build a mix-use development on the south portion of the Remainder of Estate Beeston Hill in Company Quarter, St. Croix was met with derision by senators seated in the Committee of the Whole.
The two Cruzan brothers are proposing to use not more than 50 percent of the 15 acres of land to build residential homes that could be rented or owned, a shopping center, medical center and restaurant. The project was expected to be built in three phases at a total cost of about $8 million.
But during a public hearing held on March 12, 2021 by DPNR’s Division of Coastal Planning, residents and business owners outlined 31 concerns with the proposal, which took Jewel Polimus, the Planning Technician nine minutes of her testimony to explain to senators.
She said 41 attendees expressed opposition and concern to the proposal. Prior to and after the hearing, 22 letters and emails of concern were received, with numerous concerns, including gun crimes, negative effect on natural resources, population stagnation, increase in noise, decreased quality of life, and incompatible zoning change.
The review concluded that the requested B-3 zoning (a business intense zoning model) allows uses which may not be compatible with the area and recommended that DPNR deny the petition to rezone the area, which it did on Tuesday afternoon.
“The department’s recommendation continues to be denial. We have not received any correspondences from the adjacent property owners who were opposed in the past, indicating that they’re now comfortable with the proposal,” Leia LaPlace-Matthew, territorial planner at DPNR's Division of Comprehensive and Coastal Zone Planning.
Those who oppose the project were accused by numerous senators of wanting to stifle development on St. Croix for their personal benefit, when the proposal came before them on Tuesday.
“We have a bunch of folks that have decided to turn these properties into Air BnB and now they don’t want nobody else to be able to develop around them. It’s unfair,” said Senator Novelle Francis.
“Now reading some of the objections that were presented through DPNR’s report, some of it is really outrageous to be honest,” added Senator Samuel Carrion.
Senator Kenneth Gittens addressed the brothers saying, “You guys were born here, Live here, raise here."
“Here it is we have a report of shots fired all kinds of nonsense … they’re firing shots everywhere [but] let’s not people who don’t reside in our community or are considered snow birds to dictate what transpires here in this territory,” he insisted.
Senator Kurt Vialet said St. Croix needed to develop, calling some of the opposition "excuses" to stagnate development.
He singled out an objection which stated that the development should not take place until climate change studies are completed and the Virgin Islands’ economic future was better understood.
“It really got to be like a joke that that was actually the objection. They were just pulling stuff out of the air,” he remarked.
Senator Milton Potter said it was the most objections he had seen for a rezoning request, after 21 months sitting in the Legislature. Like Mr. Carrion, he said there was a lot of duplication outlined for the rezoning concerns.
Meanwhile, Senator Carla Joseph said she was not convinced that St. Croix needed more shopping centers since there are vacant properties inside shopping centers in St. Croix.
Mr. Atta, who said he wanted to develop the community in “good faith” also accused some of the residents of not wanting to see any developmental change in the area.
Given the pushback, he had altered the original property plan by removing a number of development areas but did not resubmit those plans to DPNR because he felt discouraged.
He explained, “We had to compromise with the neighborhood. I went back and I spoke to neighbors, I walked door by door, some of them welcomed me, some did not but I came to them and told them, what can we do to make this project go forward.”
Among other things, he offered to remove the construction of the medical center which he was very keen on building and to create a detour that would not congest a nearby private road.
Nonetheless, Ms. LaPlace-Matthew said the application denial would remain since the proposal had not been submitted to DPNR and therefore couldn’t be considered in another public hearing.
Another public hearing is however likely to delay the proposed project by another six to eight months, Mr. Attah said.
DPNR was unwilling to move ahead with the rezoning even with conditions because of the amount of public opposition.
The major concern for DPNR is the large amount of acreage that the businessmen want rezoned.
Keith Richards, assistant commissioner at DPNR said the department is open to a resolution that helps the project move along but emphasized why it is against giving the developers a complete B3 designation.
“We are in support of the property owner developing the land similar to the manner that he wants to, however, a blanket B3 rezoning gives no ability for the department to control how the property is developed,” he said.
“It would be more comfortable for us to take it to a public hearing again to hear what their concerns would be with the changes,” Ms. LaPlace-Matthew suggested.
She said however that there were three development options that the men could pursue that did not involve rezonings, to include group dwelling, plan area development and subdivision of the plots.
“I did not buy the property intending to subdivide it,” Mr. Atta noted in response to the recommendation to subdivide the property into half acres.
“Leaving it as R1 and rezoning it to only develop 25 percent, I end up losing 75 percent of the property,” he added.
According to Mr. Atta said he bought the property two years ago with the intention to develop it. He admitted that he knew the land was to be used for residential low-density projects but told lawmakers that it proved difficult to find commercial properties for sale.
“It impossible, you cannot find, so I saw this property as an opportunity because there’s so many zone B3 and R3 and B2 surrounding the area so it gave me the chance [to think] that I can rezone this property,” he explained.
His explanation drew criticism from Senator Alma Heyliger, who scolded him for operating beside the law and now expecting senators to vote in favor of his development as a way out.
“We have laws in place for a reason and there’s a reason why certain things are out under specific zonings,” she remarked.
“When you come to us and ask us to change these zonings to B3, you’re potentially multiplying the value of that land sometimes three, four, five times,” she noted.
Alvin Canalii, Advisor to the Misbeh Brothers doubled down stating that all the realtors are saying that there isn’t land available for building homes.
“There’s a shortage of land available. We have a lot of land but people are not selling land,” he commented.