Regulators Grant ‘Government Activity’ Exemption to Fort Monroe Marina and Hotel Project – Smithfield Times


The project will not require a permit for impacts on wetlands, beaches and dunes

By Sarah Vogelsong

Virginie Mercury

A state regulatory committee has determined that a plan to build a new boutique hotel and redevelop a marina in Fort Monroe is a “government activity” that will not require special permits for potential impacts. on wetlands, beaches and sand dunes, drawing criticism from environmental groups.

The October 27 decision by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which advances a project announced by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration in May, involves 95,000 square feet of state-owned coastal lowlands.

“The land can be owned by a state entity and of course be leased to a private entity, but the permit applicant himself is always a private entity, and the proposed use of a hotel and marina is not not a government goal per se, “Mary-Carson Stiff, policy director of environmental nonprofit Wetlands Watch, told the commission.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which filed an 11am protest letter with the commission last week, also took the same position, arguing that the state allowing exemptions for “government activity” was intended to apply to construction and maintenance of public infrastructure such as roads and sewers.

“Without reading the legal definition, this private for-profit company would qualify,” wrote CBF Virginia director Peggy Sanner in the letter. “Exempting such use of the authorization for reasons of ‘government activity’ clearly departs from the intent of the exemption and will set a damaging precedent. “

Deputy Attorney General Kelci Block, however, argued that the redevelopment of the site by Smithfield-based Pack Brothers Hospitality could be considered government activity, as the property will continue to be Commonwealth ownership and “the construction of public buildings is explicitly listed as government activity. . “

“Here it also serves a national monument as well as a visitor center which I believe is state run and a museum in Fort Monroe which is state run,” she said. “It is state property that provides services to the citizens of the Commonwealth of Nations. “

Fort Monroe, a 565-acre former US Army post off the coast of Hampton at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, has long attracted interest and tourism. The fort sits on the site of Old Point Comfort, where the first enslaved Africans arrived in what became the United States in 1619; UNESCO designated it earlier this year as a “site of remembrance” for the role it played in the slave trade. During the War of 1812, the fort was captured by the British and it remained a Union stronghold in Confederate Virginia during the Civil War. At the end of the conflict, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned there.

In 2011, the US military officially closed the site and turned it over to the state of Virginia, where it is managed by the Fort Monroe Authority.

Authority Executive Director Glenn Oder said management has been a challenge: “Everything is past its useful life, so we are constantly trying to catch up and fix roofs and sump pumps etc. “, he told the VMRC last time. week, reporting that Fort Monroe is losing about $ 6.5 million a year.

“We’ve exhausted our capacity to do the things we can do, and now what we’re doing is reaching out to the adaptive reuse community and asking for private investment and private developers to take care of things like the marina, ”he said.

In May, the Northam administration announced that the authority had approved a 40-year land lease with Pack Brothers to redevelop the marina district at the southwest end of the fort.

Pack’s plans call for a radical overhaul of the site with an investment of $ 40 million. The existing docks at Old Point Comfort Marina will be replaced with new floating docks and a “super dock” designed to reduce the impact of waves. The current store and marina office will be replaced, while other buildings will be redeveloped into a 500-seat restaurant and 250-person event facility. The company also plans to build a living shoreline and said there will be no impact to the existing 350 square feet of wetlands on the site.

“We don’t cover it, we don’t move it, we don’t destroy it,” said Randy Pack, director of the company. “We have no impact on these wetlands at all.

More importantly, a new 90-room hotel, swimming pool and terrace will be built above the water – a design that would require VMRC approval.

Virginia law prohibits anyone from “constructing, dumping, or otherwise encroaching on or upon or encroaching upon” the submerged land that underlies state waters without a permit from the commission. These lands are extensive in all tidal zones: VMRC guidelines estimate Virginia to have 2,300 square miles, an area larger than the state of Delaware.

Commission staff say the Pack Brothers project is expected to encroach on more than 95,000 square feet of state-owned lowlands, including 28,000 square feet of new building encroachments.

That troubled commissioner Christy Everett, who is also the Hampton Roads director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. According to Everett, VMRC’s approval of the project was inconsistent with the agency’s record of discouraging the construction of “non-water-dependent” structures on water.

“I heard us talking to people who are facing cancer and they just want a shade to protect their women from the sun and we held the line and we sent a very strong and consistent and important message that if not not dependent on water, it should stay on land, ”she said. The approval, she continued, “sends a message to individuals and individuals that the government is saying, ‘Do what I say, but not what I do. “”

Everett also expressed concerns about permit exemptions, saying she believes the commission could request reviews even if they are not required by law and urging members to “really think about whether it really is. of a public entity “.

Steven Bowman, Virginia marine resources commissioner and commission chair, and member John Zydron agreed with the attorney general’s office that the development was a government project.

“At the end of the day, after this building is constructed, it will remain on property owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Bowman said. “The underwater encroachment will be the Commonwealth of Virginia on the underwater shallows of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Everett was the only VMRC member to vote against the authorization. Member Chad Ballard said he didn’t like “the fact that the state is able to go through a shortened process compared to what a private company or a citizen would have to do,” but said he thought it was a problem that should be resolved “in Richmond”, not at the commission.

Jay Ford of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said last week that the organization could appeal the decision and “consider our options before making a decision.”

“There is no one who would look at this project and say that it is clearly my government at work,” he said. “It was a real missed opportunity for state leadership. “

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