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Native Rights, Land Use Aired at Constitutional Convention Hearing

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April 4, 2008 — About two dozen people turned out at a Constitutional Convention hearing Thursday night dedicated to examining issues of citizenship and the environment.
Held at the Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Center, the Citizenship/Virgin Islands' Rights/Environment/Cultural Preservation/Historical Committee heard testimony from a half-dozen people, as well as comments from several audience members, who saw such things as preserving access to beaches, protecting archeological artifacts and defining and protecting the rights of longtime Virgin Islanders as key issues.
Many of the sentiments expressed at the hearing pointed to the disparity between some of those who come to the Virgin Islands in search of paradise versus those whose families can be traced back for generations.
"We have been here for so long, but yet we have nothing to show for it," Sean LaPlace told the committee. The 15-year-old from Charlotte Amalie High School said, despite his deep roots here, he doesn't foresee a bright future. "After I go to college and come back, I can’t afford to buy a house or a piece of land on the island. I feel we should have some sort of preference. I don’t feel it’s right for people to come here from all over the planet and have choices over me."
According to the Environmental Association of St. Thomas-St. John, or EAST, if the territory better regulated land and water use, there wouldn't be such a struggle to afford property or to access beaches that increasingly get gobbled up by development.
"Is it EAST's position that we should have in the constitution a comprehensive land and water use plan that will be implemented in five or 10 years?" asked committee vice chairman Myron Jackson.
"Any means necessary to put a fire under the legislature and the government itself to really act upon this would be good," replied Jason Budsan, the group's vice president.
Educating young Virgin Islanders about their history was another theme repeated in Thursday's hearing.
"I am here tonight because I don’t like the way I see the Virgin Islands going," Harriett Mercer said from the audience, as her twin girls, age 7, and her 5-year-old son sat by her side. She said crime could be curbed if only children were taught from an early age about their history, bolstering their pride. "I would like to see preservation of things very important to us. We need a Caribbean history course in school at a young age."
Gilbert Sprauve, a former professor at the University of the Virgin Islands and a community activist, agreed that children need to understand their colonial roots.
"I really believe that fundamentally this is where it has to start, it has to start when you educate young people so they understand what second class or less citizenship is all about," Sprauve said. "Resistance has not taken its proper place in who we are as a people. (Young people) have to be able to challenge every time they see an injustice."
Sprauve also advocated for discouraging gated communities, saying they don't promote neighborliness. He called for increased rights for landowners whose property becomes overshadowed by a large development, and he lambasted the government for failing to better protect the many cays in the Virgin Islands from developers.
Developers were also held up as a possible source for the preservation of archeological findings. Budsan from EAST suggested the convention consider a provision that would require developers to pay something in the permitting process toward preservation of historical objects.
According to committee chairman Kendall "Seigo" Peterson, who spoke following the meeting, he and his colleagues have an opportunity with this constitution to send a message to the United States, whose Congress must approve the document before it gets passed on to voters in the territory.
"America could sell us tomorrow if it gets broke," said Peterson. "The purchase of 1917 (from the Danish) was illegal. You cannot sell a free people. Anything to change our status now is a start."
The delegates have until July 27 of this year to draft and approve a constitution before it gets sent to Washington for review.

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