Vehicle access, pets and concessions were among the issues raised by community members at a town hall meeting hosted by the Magens Bay Authority Thursday evening at Charlotte Amalie High School.
Members of the authority’s board, as well as its general manager Hubert Brumant, were on hand to answer questions about the body’s stewardship of Magens Bay and Smith Pay Park. The event was moderated by LaVerne Ragster.
“In this territory, on this island, we have some natural resources that can stand up to almost anywhere," Ragster said. "The question is how do we manage them for ourselves today, and for our children in the future.”
Established in 1958 and evolving out of the St. Thomas Park Authority, the Magens Bay Authority is a corporate instrumentality of the V.I. government with a total of 98.5 acres in land holdings. These include: a 47-acre parcel at Magens Bay donated by Arthur S. Fairchild in 1946; 10 acres at the south end of Magens Bay beach and behind it, acquired in 2002; Drake’s Seat overlook, also acquired in 2002; nine additional parcels on the south side of the Peterborg peninsula; and the approximately 22-acre Smith Bay Park, acquired in 2006.
The famous 319-acre Magens Bay Preserve, established in 2002, is cooperatively managed by the Magens Bay Authority, the Nature Conservancy and the V.I. government, who all own parts of it.
Although the white sand beaches and turquoise waters of Magens Bay Beach and Lindquist Beach are the main draw of the MBA’s holdings, board Vice Chairwoman Katina Coulianos reminded community members on Thursday that St. Thomas’ parks are much more than that.
“We think of these as parks and not simply beaches," Coulianos said.
The parks also include wetlands, which house mangrove ecosystems and endangered plant life, an arboretum, colonial and Amerindian archaeological remains, and hiking trails.
Most of the concerns expressed by residents Thursday night, however, centered on the parks’ often-visited beaches, and the commercial and recreational activities they attract.
Multiple attendees of the meeting said they were uncomfortable with a gate installed at Smith Bay Park when new parking was added this year. Their complaints involved the times during which access to the parking lot is closed, as well as possible safety issues since emergency vehicles are blocked from getting to the beach after hours.
"It’s almost becoming very uncomfortable for people to visit the beach," resident Donna Slack said.
Although the gate to park closes at 5 p.m. (7 p.m. on Sundays and holidays), the beach is open to visitors 24 hours a day.
“Anyone can go down to the beach morning, noon or night," Brumant said. "But the Magens Bay Authority is not going to sit there with security and lifeguards beyond a certain time. When you’re there beyond the closing time of the park, you are there at your own risk.”
Lindquist beach has been the site of violent crime, including rapes and murders, in the past, although security in the area has improved in recent years.
MBA board members said a conscious decision was made to keep Smith Bay Park more "pristine" than Magens Bay. Vehicles are banned from parking close to the beach. There are no concessions directly on the beach; nor are there generators to supply electricity to parties and events, as there are at Magens Bay.
“These are two separate beaches and they do not operate the same,” Coulianos said. “Magens Bay is a huge beach. Smith Bay Park is about 28 acres and the capacity of the beach itself is about 500 persons. We could not go into the development of it with the idea of making another Magens Bay."
MBA board member Dayle Barry said plans are in the works to build a two-story facility at Smith Bay Park that will house concessions for "faster, lighter" food on the bottom floor, and a more upscale restaurant on the second floor that will remain open into the evening.
Brumant said this will improve security at the park by keeping a human presence there after the gates close.
Some residents, including a representative of Sen. Jean Forde’s office, expressed concern that "local food" would not be served at the facility and that the restaurant would cater mostly to tourists, but Brumant said that concessions at the park will feature local food items.
Brumant said the restaurant is also being added to the park for funding reasons. Smith Bay Park operates at a loss, he said, and is being subsidized by profits from Magens Bay.
"The goal is to make Smith Bay Park self-sustaining," he said.
“The Magens Bay Authority does not receive an appropriation from the V.I. government," Coulianos said. "The authority relies solely on the money it generates from its operations; from its gate entry fees, from its concessions that operate at the parks.”
Resident Carol Callwood said the MBA should consider a policy to allow dogs in the parks, perhaps for an extra fee or during an allotted period of time, but other attendees of the meeting were worried about safety and sanitary issues that animals on the beaches might introduce.
Some residents said that feral and tagless dogs can be seen at the beaches on occasion despite the MBA’s ban on pets.
Only a few residents raised issues of environmental stewardship, one of MBA’s main purposes.
Jason Budsan, president of the Environmental Association of St. Thomas-St. John, said the authority should be planning for the ways in which climate change will affect the island’s parks.
“One of the things we’re going to be aggressively seeing, and this is across the Caribbean, is the increase in sargassum seaweed. In Smith Bay Park, many times one sees just an onslaught of seaweed.”
Other residents complained about pollution from boats that anchor in Magens Bay, sometimes for over the seven day time period allowed by V.I. law.
Brumant acknowledged that the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources is "not always as vigorous as we might like" in enforcing boating laws, but that the MBA has no enforcement authority.
Board member Elliot “Mac” Davis said he would love to see control of the bays turned over from DPNR to the MBA.
“One of the main problems that we deal with all the time is the quality of the bay,” he said. “If we can control the bay, I can guarantee you’d see no big ships parked in there for weeks at a time.”
Davis said some projects that the MBA would like to act on, including a boardwalk at Drake’s Seat and the purchase of more land in the Magens Bay watershed, are not possible at the present time due to a lack of funds.
Davis proposed the idea of the community forming a "Friends of Magens Bay Authority" fundraising entity to help with improvements and maintenance of the authority’s holdings.