At a Senate hearing last week, a bill mandating owners of shoreline properties to provide public access to the shore was forwarded to the Rules and Judiciary Committee despite several looming questions, some of which have been answered by amendments.
Questions senators and the public had about the bill last week included: Does it violate the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause? Will owners be compensated for creating access? Who would be held liable should someone get injured on private property while traversing the shoreline? What ramifications will there be for property owners who refuse to cooperate with the proposed law? And does such access have to meet requirements set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act?
Many, but not all, of these questions have now been addressed by amendments to the bill, originally sponsored by Sens. Janelle Sarauw, Novelle Francis Jr., Kurt Vialet and Myron Jackson.
In an interview with the V.I. Source, Sarauw said the bill does not violate the Takings Clause, which refers to the government taking private property for the use of the public. Instead, she said, the bill is future-focused.
An amendment to the bill reads that homeowners, subdivision owners or developers wishing to develop or subdivide property along the shoreline, must seek final approval of building plans in cases where public access is not already provided. If they wish to build, they must dedicate land “for public access by right-of-way or easement for pedestrian travel from a public road, street or highway to the land below the high-water mark on any coastal shoreline.”
“We have so many new developments happening now, and we needed to move on that [the legislation] now, so developers are aware of the parameters to which they can build,” Sarauw said.
As for existing properties, Sarauw said she is taking time to address the matter properly.
“I have to identify a fund so that Public Works may justly compensate property owners and erect a walkway or area of access that’s also ADA compliant. A walkway that does not interfere with the privacy of property owners,” Sarauw said.
Measures have also been added in the event property owners refuse to cooperate if the bill is signed into law.
An amendment reads the Department of Planning and Natural Resources will be responsible for monitoring and enforcing compliance. A notice of violation will first be given to property owners who obstruct access, asking for the removal of the obstruction. At that point, an owner may request a hearing.
Should a property owner ignore this notice, the attorney general can institute civil action in the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands.
Additionally, DPNR can impose a fine after a notice and an opportunity for a hearing has been given to the property owner. The amendment reads that this fine can be up to $1,000 a day for first-time violators who fail to remove any obstructions within 10 days after receiving initial notice. If an individual is found in violation of obstructing access subsequent times, the fine may be doubled up to $2,000 a day until the obstruction is removed.
The amendment is clear about what constitutes an obstruction.
“The public’s right of transit is seaward of the shoreline. It is unlawful for any person to obstruct the public access to the shoreline with debris or vegetation, natural or human-induced or enhanced, along the seaward boundary of the shoreline property which inhibits the ability of the public to access the shoreline,” reads the amendment.
Questions still unanswered in the bill include who holds responsibility in the event of an accident, the property owner or the Virgin Islands government? And what are owners to do if the public, while traversing through the owner’s property, deface their property or disturb their privacy?