July 13, 2004 – Eleventh grader Kevin Charles held his sign high early Tuesday morning, beseeching drivers passing the Legislature Building on St. Thomas to "Save Vessup Beach Honk if you agree." And it just may have worked.
It may well be that enough of those honking drivers and demonstrators got the attention of their senators, who voted on Tuesday to override Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's veto of the Senate's appropriation of funding for the government to acquire the beachfront property along Vessup and Muller Bays on the island's East End. The lawmakers' decision may not have been totally directed by the demonstration, but the will of the people was loudly evident.
Kevin, president of the Ivanna Eudora Kean High School Student Council, said, "That's my beach. That's where I learned to swim. I go there all the time."
"Come on!" he yelled to a passing taxi van. "Please honk, yeah!"
Kevin was part of a spirited group of citizens demonstrating and demanding that the government keep the beaches — the "last green space" on the island, as one sign had it — from planned development.
Andrea King, president of the Red Hook Alliance, has led a 10-month fight to have the government acquire the beach properties. The grassroots alliance collected 2,400 signatures on a Save Vessup Beach petition.
Joining King's group on Tuesday morning were members of the Association of Concerned Native Virgin Islanders and the Northside Civic Organization, youngsters from the Environmental Rangers, and many other public-minded citizens who held signs calling for the beach to be preserved for Virgin Islanders, not taken over by developers.
The Senate on April 26 unanimously approved a bill appropriating $3 million from the interest earned on the government's debt service reserves for acquisition of the Vessup and Muller Bay land. Turnbull line-item vetoed the spending source, saying the money already was obligated to meet General Fund expenses.
Both Vessup Beach and Muller Beach now belong to Lionstone Hotel and Resorts, part of the acquisition of Cabrita Point by owner Alfredo Lowenstein, who said on Monday that he planned to provide public access to the beach.
King, however, said on Monday: "I don't believe it … This is the kind of activity that leaves the people of the Virgin Islands being duped, and we won't be duped any longer. We want the beach, and we want the green space behind the beach, and we want the government to acquire it by eminent domain." (See "Protestors Expected at Senate Tuesday".)
The developer would have found his name prominently displayed Tuesday, had he dropped by the Legislature. A woman identifying herself as "Juliana" stood a bit apart from the crowd, defiantly displaying a sign reading: "God created Vessup Beach, but not for you, Mr. Lowenstein."
Holding a sign asking "Governor Turnbull, are you deaf and blind?" a woman who identified herself as "Jackie" said she was a "walk-in." She walked in and was given the sign. "I'm an independent taxpayer," she said, "a Virgin Islander, and I want to see what's left of the island kept green."
Remarking on Sunday's death of Laurence Rockefeller, St. John benefactor, Melanie Brent said: "The difference between Rockefeller and Lowenstein is 26 acres" — the area of the Vessup Beach property.
A Multitude of Motorists Signaling Support
The women were having trouble being heard over the almost non-stop cacophony of horns. Everybody was honking drivers of cement trucks, garbage trucks, a Texaco truck, a Tropical Shipping truck, taxi vans loaded with cheering passengers, even a police car or two, to say nothing of independent motorists, many of whom who added a high five or stopped to glad-hand the demonstrators.
Julia and Jack Moreland held signs reading "Save our beach for our the children" and "Mr. Lowenstein go back to the USA and take their beaches." The couple said the beach has a special meaning for them. "When we first met," Jack Moreland said, "we went to Moon Beach — that's what we called it then, and I got stuck in the sand. We were there all night. It holds lots of memories." And, they said, their two nieces were baptized there.
Jawanda Hilaire and Milraen Grande, Charlotte Amalie High School students and members of the Environmental Rangers, were jumping up and down, encouraging motorists to honk. "It's good doing this," Jawanda said. "There's not many places where you can go swim." "Yeah," Milraen added, "or where we can go and have a party, a birthday party."
Jason Budsan of the Northside Civic Organization not only wants Vessup reclaimed; he was lobbying to have it become part of a territorial park system. "We need a Vessup Bay Authority, like Magens Bay," he said. "We need to protect all the beaches, and a park system will do that."
Radio personality Alex Randall conducted his WSTA show "Pulse of the People" live outside the Senate building on Tuesday, interviewing demonstrators prior to the start of the Senate session. Scheduled for 10 a.m., it was postponed to 10:30 and finally got under way at 11 a.m. Members of the majority were reportedly caucusing about the Vessup Bay issue and other possible overrides.
Randall asked King what her options were, should the override fail. "I don't think along those lines," she replied. "We're asking the senators to listen to the people. It's in my heart. I believe it's in the Lord's hands now."
While appearing confident, King and the other demonstrators who jammed the Senate chambers later sat erect and serious until the vote came on the override. And after that, it appeared to take a minute before the reality of what had just occurred sank in.
The audience had been asked by Senate President David Jones at the beginning of the session to restrain from emotional outbursts. The crowd dutifully obeyed until they filed from the chambers to the hallway outside, where hugs, laughter and tears of joy erupted.
Rita Brady, president of the Association of Concerned Native Virgin Islanders, which has been working very closely with the Red Hook Alliance, gave King a big hug, quickly joined by other supporters.
King was almost speechless, but not quite. "I'm so happy," she said. "I believe in the democratic process!" She continued, "It's a precedent-setting move, the start of a territorial park system."
Wearing a yellow Environmental Rangers T-shirt and surrounded by several youngsters jumping up and down for attention, Anna Wallace Francis, president of the environmental organization for youth, gave King another hug. The two worked closely in recent months, too. "I'm so proud of her, that she has had the nerve to do this," Francis said of King.
Francis, an Addelita Cancryn science teacher, said, the Rangers group is one year old now. "We learn about the islands' resources," she said, "and we're doing something about it."
Victory Party to Come after Clean-up
King said all of the groups will celebrate their victory on Sunday at Vessup Beach. "We'll bring garbage bags and do a clean-up and have our party then," she said.
Sen. Louis Hill, who sponsored the original legislation and Tuesday's override, came out to the hallway where he was instantly mobbed with youngsters and adults asking to take pictures posing with him. Hill was serious. "This is the most significant vote the Legislature has taken," he said. "It is historic when the legislative process works to benefit the people."
It wasn't an easy vote. Although the original bill passed unanimously, that was
not the case on Tuesday. The chambers were tense at the roll call. The override passed on a 10-2 vote with two senators not voting and one absent for the vote.
Sens. Lorraine Berry, Douglas Canton, Roosevelt David, Carlton Dowe, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Emmett Hansen II, Hill, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Ronald Russell and Celestino A. White Sr. voted for the override.
Sens. Jones and Shawn-Michael Malone voted against. Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste and Usie Richards abstained, and Sen. Luther Renee was absent for the vote.
What will happen next remains to be seen. Liburd said after the vote: "Just because there's been an override, that doesn't automatically mean it's all settled." He warned that the eminent domain process can be lengthy and complicated.
Hill said in May, in declaring after Turnbull's veto that he would move for an override: "I understand the great financial constraints that the government is presently under, but we must meet the challenges of leadership, adjust our spending priorities, and do the right thing to protect and preserve our people's quality of life."
There is no large inventory of sandy beaches that "we can wait to preserve tomorrow when our cash flow is better," Hill said. "If we do not make a decision now to protect some green space and sandy beaches, our legacy to future generations will be one of failure and neglect."
It was the sentiment which dominated the signs in Tuesday's demonstration.
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