Bill Would Make Some Property Owners More Sacred Than Others

Several senators are pushing a new law that would, on its face, force people who own shoreline property not just to allow access to the shore but to build public roads, public sidewalks and more, at their own expense. The proposal is unconstitutional, unfair and abusive. It also begs the question: why do senators casually consider forcing some property owners to spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars building new public infrastructure, while glossing over owners of rundown buildings in Frederiksted and Christiansted who, year after year, do nothing to improve them, hurting everyone’s quality of life and damaging the tourism economy

This boarded-up house sits around the corner from the seaplane terminal in Christiansted. Downtown Christiansted also has several prominent properties that are permanently boarded up, with no plans for improvement anytime soon. (Bill Kossler photo)

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Janelle Sarauw, Kurt Vialet, Novelle Francis and Alicia Barnes, says the “owners of the property that the public uses to access the shoreline must provide a path for vehicles and disabled individuals, and a path for civilians to walk.” If they don’t spend money to build this new public infrastructure, they can be fined thousands of dollars.

We support beach access. We support the V.I. Beach Access law. When you live on an island, being able to access the shore is a crucial right. Without those protections, wealthy people could buy up the shorelines and fence them off. That would effectively pen everyone else on these small islands into the interior, only able to get to the shore that surrounds all of us at a few crowded public spots. Fencing off the shore would disenfranchise everyone from a working family who was born and raised on these islands but who lacks such grand resources. This is a vital public quality of life concern for Virgin Islanders. The quiet enjoyment of those who buy beachfront property has to be balanced with the public’s right to access the shore.

But V.I. law already prohibits property owners from putting up “any obstruction, barrier, or restraint of any nature whatsoever upon, across or within the shorelines … which would interfere with the right of the public individually and collectively, to use and enjoy any shoreline.”

That existing law should be rigorously enforced.

It is one thing to define the shoreline as public property and to ban property owners from building barriers to public access. It is quite another to try to order property owners to spend their own money to build public roads, public sidewalks and public wheelchair ramps across their property for uninvited strangers’ enjoyment.

Is there be something about those whom senators think own shoreline land that’s different from owners of the many rundown and abandoned buildings in the historic town centers?

Derelict buildings like the abandoned Legislature complex in Frederiksted, or the abandoned Legislature complex in Christiansted, are serious eyesores. The many, many other abandoned, boarded-up buildings in Christiansted, Frederiksted and throughout the territory are a blight that reduces the quality of life for the people living there. And they make the historic towns of St. Croix in particular, not just less attractive for cruise passengers, but seedy and unwelcoming. Run down areas breed crime, also hurting everyone’s quality of life. So why is trying to squeeze money out of people with homes on the shore a higher priority than squeezing money out of owners of blighted properties in town?

This historic hospital building is one of the most prominent sites on the waterfront as tourists leave cruise ships to explore St. Croix. It sits derelict and decrepit while senators focus on a doomed effort to force waterfront homeowners to build roads, sidewalks and wheelchair ramps for strangers to cross their yards. (Bill Kossler photo)

Governments have long had many tools for pressuring property owners to keep up and maintain their property. Asking owners to prevent property from deteriorating takes nothing from them. It preserves and creates value. These landowner’s negligence has not only hurt the economy and quality of life in the Virgin Islands but their own net worth. Yet senators are not trying to mandate that those landowners spend tens of thousands of dollars improving their own land, making it go up in value and enriching them.

Is there something different about how senators perceive landowners near the shore that makes them nonchalant about trying to force these specific landowners to spend gigantic sums of money on public infrastructure that does not benefit them while derelict building owners are untouchable?

It’s understandable that senators want to put their name on measures that seem popular or populist. Constituent service is important. But abusing some of your constituents in pretense of serving other constituents is not representing the people. To be charitable, maybe the senators were thinking solely of public access and did not think through what they are proposing.

There probably isn’t much to worry about. This bill is unlikely to become law. If it does, it will be struck down by the courts. You can’t force people to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for public amenities for uninvited strangers on their property. The U.S. Constitution even says “N]or shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

But by the same token, just because a bill is too poorly thought-out to become law is a bad excuse for proposing an unfair, unconstitutional and impractical law in the first place. We expect better from our senators than unfunded spending and unconstitutional pandering.

Editor’s Note: Senators voted to hold this bill in committee on Wednesday.