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HomeNewsLocal newsBeach Chair Rentals, Mooring Plan Concerns Dominate Magens Bay Meeting

Beach Chair Rentals, Mooring Plan Concerns Dominate Magens Bay Meeting

Lounge chairs line the beach at Magens Bay last month on a day that five cruise ships called on St. Thomas. (Photo by Jason Budsan)
Lounge chairs line the beach at Magens Bay last month on a day that five cruise ships called on St. Thomas. (Photo by Jason Budsan)

Moorings and beach chair rentals dominated the discussion at the Magens Bay Authority monthly board meeting on Friday, with more than two dozen residents expressing concerns that locals are losing their public park to attractions for tourists.

Velvet ropes and “reserved” signs that cordon off beach seating for visitors at $20 a pop ($10 for residents) is not what Arthur Fairchild envisioned when he deeded the property to the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1947, said Jason Budsan, a longtime community activist, runner and swimmer who visits the park almost daily.

One recent morning, when he placed his towel on the sand among the lounge chairs that were already erected in neat rows in front of and past the concession building, two concession employees and a lifeguard told him he needed to move, he said. “Oh, you’re one of those,” he said one of the employees told him when he challenged them. Eventually, they relented.

“It is really upsetting, and I could point to V.I. Code,” Budsan told the board, referencing 32 VIC 60(b) concerning the park’s governance that states, “Nothing in this chapter shall be interpreted to mean that the full and proper use of any part of the beach by the public may be prohibited or restricted. The rights of all fishermen using any beach coming under the authority of the Magens Bay Authority herein provided shall continue inviolate.”

Velvet ropes, reserved signs and rows of up to 375 chairs for rent is not what Fairchild envisioned for the park, said Budsan, adding that the ambience that creates is, “If you can’t pay, you don’t belong here.”

A velvet rope and "retreat" sign designate an area of Magens Bay Beach reserved for customers renting beach chairs. (Photo by Jason Budsan)
A velvet rope and “Retreat, reserved area” sign designate a section of Magens Bay Beach for customers renting beach chairs. (Photo by Jason Budsan)

Others said the scene is more reminiscent of a cruise ship, with people crammed together in a sea of chairs, and that when they stretch from the concession building down to the surf line, it makes it hard for locals — especially older residents — who walk the beach for exercise to navigate that area without having to wade into the water and onto shifting ground.

“This is not accessible — how does someone get through an area like this?” said Budsan, holding up photos for the crowd to see. “How many beach chairs is enough?”

“It’s ugly and really not what the Virgin Islands has been represented as,” said former Sen. Ruby Simmonds Esannason. “That’s not what Magens Bay was intended to be.”

“Understood,” said longtime local businessman Pash Daswani, who was awarded the concessions for the beach rentals and boutique store in September after a competitive bid process. At the end of the day, he said, his goal is to give guests a great experience when they visit “the crown jewel” of the Virgin Islands, and to receive positive reviews. He added that anybody is welcome to rent the chairs, and that locals get a $10 discount.

He also noted that the area designated for rental chairs hasn’t changed “one foot more” since he took over the concession, nor has the number of chairs, which is set at 375, plus 100 for backup in case one breaks. The chairs are removed each evening and set back up between 6 and 6:30 a.m. the next day.

How many chairs depends on the number of cruise ships that day, said Daswani. For example, when the Icon of the Seas — the world’s largest cruise ship with a capacity for 7,600 guests — made its inaugural call on St. Thomas last month, more than 300 chairs were erected along the beach, he said.

“Yes, there are empty ones, because you don’t know how many will show up,” said Daswani, who added that staff have been instructed to leave corridors of four to six feet between the rows of chairs to address complaints they hinder access to the concession building and to make the area accessible for walkers.

“That is already being addressed,” he said, but pushed back on the idea of keeping the chairs stacked until someone wants to rent one. If a visitor has reserved a chair for $20 as part of their tour package, they shouldn’t have to drag it down the beach themselves or wait for it to be set up when they have a limited amount of time to spend and there might be 100 other people waiting on the service, he said.

“It does provide a better guest experience,” to have them set up beforehand, said Magens Bay Authority Board Chairperson Barbara Petersen.

Moreover, his staff — which the crowd complimented as courteous and professional — knows that there are no restrictions as to who can sit where on the beach, said Daswani. “The beach is public — you can set up a chair anywhere you choose,” he said.

While Daswani showed up to listen to concerns and answer questions about his operation, nobody from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources attended Friday’s meeting, or the authority’s annual town hall last month, to address the ongoing issue of yachts anchoring in the bay, and its plan to install 15 moorings in partnership with the Virgin Islands Professional Charter Association.

A super yacht as seen through the supports of a Magens Bay shed. ((Source photo by S. Pennington)
A super yacht as seen through the supports of a Magens Bay shed in 2020. (Source file photo by Shaun A. Pennington)

Mega yachts have become a near constant presence in the bay since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the British Virgin Islands, the longtime leader in the charter boat industry, closed its borders to tourists and they instead flocked to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The moorings will be installed and maintained by VIPCA after a bottom study is conducted to determine their best locations, said board member Katina Coulianos, who also noted that the Magens Bay Authority’s jurisdiction does not extend to the submerged lands, which are strictly the purview of DPNR and the Coast Guard.

Six of the moorings will be designated for day use, and nine for transient or overnight mariners, with a strict three-day limit for the latter, said board member Jason Charles. All will be located on the north end of the beach and will be alternated so that boats cannot raft up, as currently happens frequently.

Beyond being better than anchoring for the underwater environment, the moorings will also help authorities track who is in the bay since boaters must register to use them, and if all the moorings are taken, they will have to leave, said Charles.

Petersen admitted that “it’s a matter of enforcement” as members of the crowd expressed skepticism that boaters won’t just come and drop anchor anyway, because DPNR lacks the manpower or boats to properly police the territory’s waters. Coulianos said the next step is to have Magens Bay designated a “no anchoring” zone.

Fisherman Gene Brin Jr., who has a generational mooring at the north end of the beach, asked whether consideration has been given to their placement, reminding the board that fishers frequent that area to catch yellowtail and hognose with nets. Charles agreed, and said he’ll ensure “that piece is pushed” before the final locations are determined.

In other business, Petersen said the board is vetting applicants for the position of general manager, currently being filled by operations manager MemorieAnne Brown-Callender after Hubert Brumant was fired last March after working in the role since 2007. She said a decision will be announced by the end of next month.

Board members Petersen, Coulianos, Charles, Robert Marone and Avery Lewis attended Friday’s meeting. Cecile deJong and Dayle Barry had excused absences.

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