Beach access and beach development were the subjects of two bills tabled at the committee on Government Operations, Consumer Affairs, Energy, Environment and Planning on Wednesday.
However, senators emphasized neither issue was going to die.
The most extensive bill called for an overhaul of the V.I. Coastal Zone Management Act. The bill addresses issues including:
– Modifying some of the standards for the issuance of coastal zone permits,
– Decreasing the number of committee members as well as increasing the term and per diem of members of the Coastal Zone Management Commission,
– Decreasing the time period for filing an appeal with the Board of Land Use Appeals, and
– Decreasing the time-period within which the Board of Land Use Appeals must hold a public hearing on an appeal.
Jean-Pierre Oriol, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resource, told the senators, “At this time, we ask that Bill No. 33-0105 be held in committee to afford the sponsors of the bill the opportunity to meet with CZM staff and review the act in its entirety, making a more complete set of amendments.”
His testimony prompted Sen. Alicia Barnes to note that Oriel’s department had a draft of the bill since mid-June. She suggested if the department did its review in a timely fashion, “We would have been further along in the process.”
Sen. Myron Jackson echoed her statement, saying, “As legislators, we rely on timely responses from the agencies.”
Oriol was concerned over the proposal to reduce the number of Coastal Zone Management Commission members. He said at present, two of the three committees only have three members.
“As quorums are the main issue for the committees, the solution cannot be to reduce the number of members. Rather, we should be seeking to fill the vacant seats, reducing the likelihood of actions being taken by default for lack of a quorum for the committees,” Oriol said.
He was also concerned with language in the bill that would affect decisions on whether a project would need a major coastal zone permit or a minor one. “While cost should be a determining factor in the determination of a major or minor permit, the environmental impact of the development should be the determining factor for whether or not a project is considered major or minor,” he said.
Masserae Sprauve Webster, chairwoman of the St. Croix Coastal Zone Commission, was also against reducing the number of members on the commissions from five to three.
While introducing the bill, Barnes said it was an effort to streamline the permitting process. She said it would extend the life of a permit so the department would no longer be “bogged down’ with requests for extensions.
“The St. Croix Coastal Zone Commission does not support the recommendation that a project should be allowed 36 months to begin construction following permitting,” Webster testified. The St. Croix CZM Commission does support increasing the permit period from one year to a maximum of 18 months.”
John Woods, chairman of the Board of Land Use Appeals, answered questions from senators concerning an extension. He said developers generally have about 35 percent of their plan complete when they go for the permit because it does not make financial sense to do the work of having the plans 100 percent complete without a permit. He said it might take another six months to complete the plans and then the developer goes out for financial backing and before the backing comes through the permit expires and an extension is required.
Legislators and testifiers agreed that the whole process did need changes. Jackson said it was “long overdue.”
Voting to table the measure were committee members Sens. Barnes, Jackson, Marvin Blyden, Allison DeGazon, and Athneil Thomas. Committee members Sens. Kenneth Gittens and Javan James did not attend.
Barnes said, “This is just the beginning of the process. We look forward to the second go around.”
When Sen. Janelle Sarauw introduced a bill concerning public access to beaches she said it might be “overreaching” and “contentious.”
However, her colleagues welcomed what Jackson called a “healthy discussion.”
Sen. Novell Francis said, “There is some real concern about public access.”
Barnes called it an important measure. She said residents who used to go to what was traditionally their childhood beach were now hearing, “Get off my property.”
“This is a problem,” she said.
The bill would require owners of shoreline property “to provide the public with suitable access to the shorelines, imposing fines for failure to comply with this requirement, and granting the Department of Planning and Natural Resources enforcement and investigative authority regarding shoreline access.”
The bill raised constitutional issues according to senate legal counsel.
“The Department understands the intent of the legislation, which is to ensure the right of access to the shoreline for the people of the Virgin Islands,” Oriol said. “However, we believe the bill as drafted creates a number of challenges for implementation, but more importantly, cannot withstand the “takings” test under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.”
The bill specifically stated, “The owner or owners of the property that the public uses to access the shoreline must provide a path for vehicles and disabled individuals, and a path for civilians to walk.”
Resident Brigitte Berry offered testimony in support of the bill.
“Over 300,000 results pop up on Google for villas with private beaches in St. Thomas,” she said. “From east to west visitors are promised villas with their own private beach attached, and they get very upset when you dare to be on them.”
She recalled incidents where access was blocked to Botany Bay and Caneel Bay. The Botany Bay Preserve website advertises “all with commanding ocean views and easy beach access to three private and intimate coves.” A real estate site says the average price of a house there is $1.4 million.
Sarauw said people are “commandeering our beaches.” She added, “This is absolutely crazy. This is our home.”
Oriol said people are allowed beach access from the low-water mark to 50 feet inland and any resident who is being blocked access should have the police come.
All committee members voted to table the bill which was proposed by Sens. Sarauw, Francis, and Kurt Vialet. Barnes is a cosponsor.