March 15, 2004 – Nearly every seat was taken in the legislative chambers Monday evening as the Planning and Environmental Protection Committee heard testimony unanimously condemning the proposed sale to a mainland company of one of the last undeveloped beaches on St. Thomas's East End.
Miami-based Lionstone Corp. has sole rights to buy the 17 acres fronting the stretch of public beach at Vessup Bay until June 23. If the company does use its option to purchase the land, it must, by law, allow public access. However, witnesses said, it could discourage the popular barbecues, pet walking and horse training the beach is known for.
"We implore you to have forethought now to obtain Vessup beach and to designate it as the first Virgin Islands territorial park, providing much-needed public space for our people and critical protected habitat for our wildlife," Red Hook resident Andrea King told the senators.
King is president of the Red Hook Alliance, a coalition of residents opposed to the land sale. She testified that the development of a Miami-style resort along the shore would not only limit public use of the popular beach but also irrevocably damage the area's natural beauty and serenity
Now, she said, "you get the feeling of entering a public space, with no concrete structures hindering your view, your enjoyment of the breezes or your ability to use the area freely."
Lionstone Corp. was not represented at the hearing and could not be reached for comment late Monday.
A bill proposed by the committee chair, Sen. Louis Hill, would designate $3 million to purchase the land and retain it exclusively for public recreation.
"In this scenario, it's not too late," Hill said. "We have an opportunity to do what is right for the community."
Members of the committee pledged to back the proposed bill, which was not up for consideration at Monday's hearing, but urged that the public outcry not stop at the Legislature but follow the measure when it goes to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull.
"It will be up to you at that point in time to continue to lobby for the implementation of this measure," Hill said.
Other legislators spoke out strongly in support of the government purchasing the beach
"It troubles me every time we have to wind up in this sort of crisis," Sen. Carlton Dowe said, recalling that the lawmakers had previously voted to purchase Lindqvist beach, but that the bill was never ratified and now the land has been sold to private developers.
"We fail to execute and we fail to proceed," Dowe said. "I don't think anyone should be able to limit access to that beach."
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg echoed calls for a land- and water- use authority to manage the conservation of shorelines for public use. "I would support any initiative that any of my colleagues have to purchase property for preservation," he said. "Do you know how many beaches we can't access? Yes, it's not too late to protect Vessup beach and many other beaches, but look at what we've lost. At the rate we are going now … there will be nothing left for our children."
Hill also said at the hearing that a proposal for the creation of a comprehensive land- and water-use authority could be ready for public consideration as early as April.
Committee members in attendance were: Sens. Donastorg, Hill, Ronald Russell and Shawn Michael-Malone.
Sens. Lorraine Berry and Emmett Hansen II, who are not members of the committee, also sat in on the hearing and pledged their support of the bill to buy the land for the public.
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