May 30, 2001 – What was expected to be a volatile public hearing between St. John taxi drivers and members of the St. John Accommodations Council Tuesday night actually ended with at least the scent of a solution in the air.
The three-hour meeting of the Senate Government Operations, Planning and Environmental Protection Committee was held in the Legislative Conference Room in Cruz Bay. Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd, a St. John resident, said he was drafting legislation to reserve several parking spaces by the Cruz Bay dock -– the scene of physical confrontations over parking in the past -– for residents.
The taxi drivers have had and want to keep control of all the parking spots. Other community groups, including the Accommodations Council, want some spaces reserved for residents' use.
Now, whenever ferries arrive from St. Thomas at busy times of day, traffic builds up at the dock as villa rental people meeting guests and taxi drivers awaiting fares vie for space to park.
"I know the situation at the dock; I've lived with it all my life," Liburd said, echoing what several witnesses had said. But, he added, "You should not stop a community from growing."
A 1979 law transferring the 4,104 square feet of land adjacent to the dock from the Port Authority to the residents of St. John was amended two weeks after it was passed, giving control of the space to the St. John Taxi Services Corp. The action taken then did not consider the growth the community would experience, according to Andrew Rutnik, commissioner of Licensing and Consumer Affairs and another St. John resident.
"Since the … law was passed, the island has changed," he said.
Legislative legal counsel Yvonne Tharpes had a different view entirely. Based on her review of the law, she said, "the Port Authority has no authority to lease the property to any entity."
Tharpes said the intent of the law was to allow the Public Safety Department, now the Police Department, to manage the area "for the general welfare" of the community.
An off-duty police officer was accused of physically attacking a villa courtesy car driver in a dispute over parking in March of 2000. That incident brought the long-simmering controversy to a head.
Meetings were held at the time, but no compromise was reached. In April 2000, Mary Hildebrand, president of the St. John Accommodations Council, said she was hopeful an agreement could be reached.
There was talk more than a year ago that a memorandum of understanding would be drafted in which the taxi association would agree to leave unchanged six parking spaces that had traditionally been available for public parking. However, according to Hildebrand, the six spaces had no official designation and police never knew how to enforce the parking. She also said people had been known to park in the spaces all day.
St. John Administrator Julien Harley concurred. He said it was fine for people to park in the spaces to do short-term business. But "if you're going to St. Thomas for the day," he added, parking is available "by the tennis courts."
Harley said Tuesday night that he is "not very happy with what is happening at the dock." He said he met with police and asked them to "use their discretion" in enforcing a five-minute parking limit directly in front of the dock, rather than change signs to make the limit 15 minutes. But, he added, "The next thing I know they are giving tickets."
Harley said even he has a hard time getting to work at the Battery because of taxis parked in front of the gates. "People that live here, were born here -– these guys still give them a hard time," he said.
However, Randolph Thomas, president of St. John Taxi Services, said, "I don't see why we're here tonight. Read the bill taking the land from the V.I. Port Authority."
Thomas said the bill supports the taxi association's right to the space. He also said even though the lease is currently with the attorney general awaiting approval, "we have a month-to-month lease."
The lease requires the taxi association to pay $5,040 a year for leasing the space.
Marc Biggs, commissioner of Property and Procurement, the department charged with the execution of all leases of government property, wrote to Thomas in February asking him to "develop an agreement between both parties whereby the use of the dock area can be utilized jointly, as both entities serve as ambassadors of the Virgin Islands."
Further, Biggs wrote, "your renewal is contingent upon the submittal of that agreement to my office."
Elston George, representing Biggs at Tuesday night's meeting, could not say why Biggs had signed the lease and forwarded it to the attorney general's office without having the requested signed agreement from the taxi association.
Asked by Sen. Carlton Dowe if he would be willing to sublet six spaces to the Accommodations Council, Thomas hedged, finally saying the association would have to vote on that.
A memorandum of understanding drawn up by the taxi association but so far unsigned makes no mention of the six spaces but states that Accommodations Council members "will park their vehicle(s) in front of the taxi line … and must stay with their vehicle and work among themselves to greet the guest of those in the wait line."
Hildebrand said she has not signed the memorandum because "it tells us that we can park in an area that is already a public parking area."
Harley said, "My posture is make six spots for residents, whether it is the Accommodations Council or my wife coming from St. Thomas with packages."
Liburd agreed, adding that the spaces for residents should be the ones closest to the dock, since it was most likely that residents would be carrying packages.
Committee members in attendance at the hearing in addition to Dowe were Sens. Roosevelt David, Celestino A. White Sr. and Donald "Ducks" Cole, who chairs the panel. Liburd is not a member of the committee.


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