August 1, 2004 – Under the noonday sun an armed guard patrols a chain link and welded-iron fence topped by taut strands of barbed wire and a menacing tangle of razor-sharp steel. A second row of the shiny new razor wire runs along the bottom of the fence. One glance is enough to see that nobody is getting over, under, or through this obstacle. Plus, there's the armed patrol to deal with anyone foolhardy enough to try.
Sound like the perimeter security at Golden Grove Correctional Facility on St. Croix, or maybe the description of the opening scene of an action-adventure flick about a fanatical paramilitary group bent on some act of violence? These are good guesses, but you'll find the guard and the fence – guns, razor wire and all – along a quiet dirt road in Estate Tabor and Harmony adjacent to Sunsi Bay.
A section of the fence reinforced by iron bars falls directly across the start of a trail used by generations of Virgin Islanders to get down a steep hillside to Sunsi Beach, a secluded, white-sand spot favored by those looking to escape the crowds. Additionally, the guards, who began 24-hour patrol of the fence on July 29, have been posted directly in front of the trailhead. All of this points to the fact that, as was the case with the recent Lindqvist Beach fence battle, the fence is there to keep locals off the beach. The armed guards, however, may represent a first in V.I. history.
In the case of Lindqvist Beach, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources ordered the V.I. Investments Company, which did not obtain a permit for its fence, to pay $260,000 in fines and to restore access to the beach. The company eventually opened its gates to beach goers and had its fines reduced substantially, but in the case of Sunsi, a different standard regarding historical beach access seems to have been applied by the DPNR.
There is no record of when the fence first went up. Apparently, its owners, Lana and Richard Vento, also did not bother with a permit. But angered residents notified the DPNR and a March 18 letter from the Coastal Zone Management division to the Ventos says the fence was erected in violation of the law. The Ventos, who records indicate own more than $5 million in property wrapping around from Spring Bay to the east, were asked to pay a fine of $5,000 and to apply for an after-the-fact permit. They were granted a permit on June 25 with no public hearing. In the case of a fence, for which a minor permit must be obtained, a public hearing is not technically required under the law. However, a CZM official explained there are mitigating circumstances the could give rise to a public hearing regardless of the type of permit being sought. Ultimately, the decision to hold a public hearing rests with DPNR commissioner, Dean Plaskett.
The Sunsi path is clearly marked on plot maps of the area, and there have been numerous complaints from neighborhood residents who want the beach access path back. Still, the CZM letter makes no mention of the access issue. So the Vento's barricade stands, and people who've been going to Sunsi Beach for more than 30 years are locked out.
Jan Komives said she and her husband, Kurt, have been living in Tabor and Harmony for about 28 years, and they "have been using the beach and the access path continually."
"We used to take our horses and our dogs down there, and kids used to come over from Anna's Retreat. The whole community here has always used the beach," she said.
Lisa Potter recalled as a young girl spending time at Sunsi beach. "From the time I was a young child I've been going there."
Potter said she was shocked when, on a recent boating trip, she pulled into Sunsi Bay and discovered "a huge road dug all the way around" the beach. She questioned where the environmental watch dogs had been while the road was being cut.
As for the property owners, Potter said, "They go and buy the property and are all smiles when they are doing it." Once the deals are sealed she said they take on the attitude, "This is my piece of paradise, and the fences start going up."
She said, "I used to say what's the big deal," when people were buying up "pieces of paradise." But today she feels differently. "Now that I have children I want to take them to the places that I used to go."
Carla Joseph, president of the Environmental Association of St. Thomas, said her organization has been looking into the matter for some time now. "We have written to DPNR about it and have heard nothing from them," she said. But the armed patrol brings up an entirely new issue for Joseph. "I'm really shocked that a property owner would use an armed service to prevent access to a shoreline property. I have never heard of anything like this in the Virgin Islands."
Komives and Joseph acknowledge the rights of property owners and say they would have little problem if the Ventos decide to develop their piece of the island. What they say they don't understand is why the Ventos would go to such lengths to prevent others from using the beach. Phone call's placed by the Source to a number listed as the Vento's were not returned.
"It's just one more beach down the drain," Komives said. "One more place where you cannot go for calm and peace and tranquility."
While she and EAST await a response from the DPNR, Joseph can only speculate about the fate of Sunsi and why the usurpation of the community's beaches by the wealthy is permitted. She blamed the vagueness of the Open Shoreline Act for much of the confusion. The Shoreline Act, she explained, says that access to beaches must be provided but does not specify much beyond that. This lack of clarity, she said, allows property owners and exclusive hotels to claim they allow access to their beaches by boat. "Our only recourse now will be through the legislature," Joseph said.
Sunsi is only one of a number of St. Thomas beaches where access has been limited, or is in danger of becoming so, to land-bound locals. Land access to Lindqvist, Vessup, Santa Maria, Botany Bay, Little Magens and Platform Beach are threatened due to private development.
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