When Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. and members of his cabinet showed up for a town hall meeting on St. John Wednesday night, residents were ready with a barrage of questions and comments about issues affecting the islands.
Topics ranged from the conditions of the roads, schools, and the library, to questions on ancestral property rights and zoning codes, to complaints about scantily dressed tourists, to large issues like development.
The two-and-a-half-hour meeting held in Cruz Bay’s Frank Powell Sr. Park got off to a sizzling start when a rain squall hit just as the first member of the audience took the microphone. With a snap, crackle and pop, the lights and sound system shut down, but the systems were rebooted and the meeting proceeded after a few minutes.
Gov. Bryan began the meeting touting his administration’s accomplishments, including paying down a debt to WAPA, repaying a portion of back taxes owed, providing free tuition at UVI for graduates of Virgin Islands schools, funding summer programs for youth, and subsidizing ferry companies which lost business during the pandemic.
He spoke of the complexities of setting up programs to rebuild the economy after the hurricanes of 2017 and again after COVID, programs including stimulus funds, rental assistance, unemployment, mortgage relief, and now the child tax credit. “In 2017 [Gov. Kenneth] Mapp had a capital improvement budget of $20 million a year. We have already issued $400 million for projects in this year alone,” he said.
“We have $500 million in the bank now; we have until 2026 to spend it. We’re trying to partner with the private sector because at the end of the day, there’s only so much you can get through the government pipeline at one time.”
Many St. John residents listened politely, but others showed pent-up frustration about problems which they continue to face.
Throughout the meeting, facilitator Shayla Solomon, who serves as the assistant for public affairs for Lt. Governor Tregenza Roach, said anyone who has other concerns who did not get a chance to speak or preferred to keep their question private, should contact St. John Administrator Shikima Jones-Sprauve at 340-474-5762, or the governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff Kevin Rodriguez at 340-227-3488.
The lack of affordable housing was a continuing theme brought up by residents.
Evanna Chinnery, who identified herself as a 4th-generation St. Johnian, said ancestral St. Johnians were being priced off the island. “We have to leave because we can’t afford property. What programs and activities are being done, and how are they being communicated to people of my generation?” she asked.
Bryan said that programs were being developed through Community Development Block Grants. “St. John housing is always a problem. We’re looking at sites to purchase. We believe in St. Johnians owning their own homes….if you have more suggestions, we’re clear and open to them…. It takes time to get these programs underway.”
Maxine Plaskett, a St. Johnian and a veteran, described her frustration looking for housing after her home was damaged by Hurricane Irma and asbestos was found during an inspection for a federal rebuilding program.
She said her family, including four grandchildren, was forced to move out of their home at George Simmons Terrace eight months ago, and since then nothing has been done to assist them.
Bryan said his Kevin Rodriguez, would take their information and follow up on their situation. He said numerous problems arose in the efforts to rebuild homes following the Hurricanes of 2017. Out of 400 homes that ended up qualifying out of the 800 applications, only 40 were being repaired under the EnVIsion program.
Kristen Cox, who spoke later in the meeting, said she was a transplant who now owns a small business. It took her 21 years to be able to own a piece of property, but her daughter, who is a native, is panicking at the idea of not being able to settle in her own home unless someone gives her a piece of family land. “The wealthy people are driving up the cost of living. How can we balance that?”
Cox said she was also concerned about current zoning laws in the Virgin Islands. Clarifying her concerns later to the Source, she said that 90 percent of St. John’s villas, Airbnb’s, and residential long-term rentals are in areas zoned as low density residential, yet commercial businesses – including rentals –are not permitted in these areas under current law.
“The code has to be rewritten, or we’re going to have a lot of homeless people and jobless people,” she said.
Lorne Battiste, who said he was a 5th-generation St. Johnian, brought up another matter concerning property ownership. He said ancestral St. Johnian families were being taxed in violation of treaties dating back to the Danish Colonial period.
Bryan said legislation had been passed to assist property owners that they might not know about. He gave a barrage of facts about tax collection, ending with the fact that the Federal Government only pays $30,000 for its property in the U.S. Virgin Islands, including all of the V.I. National Park. “We need a better cut of the pie,” he said.
A woman who identified herself simply as “Megan” who “works in the service industry” asked why the governor was letting in cruise ships now “while hospitals were filling up” with new COVID-19 cases, and visitors who were used to fewer restrictions were non-compliant about masking regulations.
She said St. John restaurants were overwhelmed with customers and were closing down on certain days because of staffing shortages, largely due to the housing crisis on the island.
Bryan defended the return of the cruise ships, citing passengers’ high vaccination rates, adding, “I’m glad our problem is too many tourists,” then added, “While restaurants are doing well, jewelry stores and taxi drivers are not.”
Several other residents had complaints about tourists. Kayla Anthony asked for 24-hour police presence on the ferry dock because security staff could not adequately deal with misbehavior.
BJ Harris also asked for more enforcement by police of dress codes. “I’ve seen more skin here in Cruz Bay in the last month than I’ve seen in 42 years,’ she said.
Harith Wickrema, president of Island Green Living Association, said tourists are “leaving poopy diapers, using plastic bags, riding sea turtles, and continuing to use toxic sunscreens and plastic straws in spite of bans against these products. What can you do to educate the public and get the message across? We will raise some money to get the message out.”
Bryan said, “We’ve been a little distracted by COVID, but we need to do more.” He said U.S. Customs officers enforce federal regulations but not local laws, like the ban on toxic sunscreens.
Ralph Carbon told acting Police Commissioner Ray Martinez that tools worth more than $3,000 had been stolen from his vehicle recently. Carbon said he reported the crime, but “The police were lollygagging. The general consensus is ‘Don’t go to the police, they ain’ gonna do nuthin.’”
Carbon said he had to investigate on his own and managed to recover some of the tools. “I identified the suspect [to the police] yesterday; up till now he hasn’t been called in. What can you do to rebuild trust?”
Martinez said, “We have failed St. John. I’ve been on the job for six days, but I’m responsible. I’ve made it a point to name Lt. Clayton Brown as the new deputy chief for St. John.”
Martinez added that he was grateful Carbon didn’t take the law into his own hands. “I don’t sugarcoat anything. If you did, I was coming for you because two wrongs don’t make a right. In short order you’re going to hear of us changing up some of our strategies. I’ve walked in at a good time when we have several million [dollars] to install CCT cameras and license plate readers. I intend to lead,” he said.
One resident suggested that the government find means to support the ferries to make more frequent runs. Bryan responded favorably, then added that the U.S. Coast Guard recently had “some issues” with some ferries, resulting in their being replaced temporarily with ferries from the British Virgin Islands.
Several people asked when a new school would be built on St. John. Bryan said negotiations were continuing with the National Park Service to acquire land on which to put the school, but he thought it would be another five years until the school was completed.
Long-time educator Lisa Penn asked about the deteriorating condition of the Elaine I. Sprauve Library which has been closed since Hurricane Irma hit in 2017.
Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol said a request for bids had been issued; two companies had responded with bids that were way over the budgeted amount. Since then, more funding has been found, and a new request would soon be issued.
Pam Gaffin asked when Centerline Road would be repaired. Public Works Commissioner Derek Gabriel said portions of the road would go out to bid for repair in August.
Lorelei Monsanto decried some recent developments, including the construction of what she said was an illegal dock in Cruz Bay. “My question has to do with some of the precious resources of the Virgin Islands; it appears on St. John that we are under attack,” she said.
Speaking directly to the governor, she said, “You have supported, against the will of the people, the [development of an] area of Coral Bay [referring to Summer’s End Group’s St. John Marina]. I would like to know why you’ve taken this position in reference to our precious resources.
“I’m going to tell you what my position is, popular or not. I’m a straight shooter” said Bryan. “Seventy-five percent of St. John is a national park. [Author’s note: the number is closer to 60 percent of the land.] The remaining 25 percent is for St. Johnians to make out a living, have a place to live and a job without having to go to St. Thomas. And keep it safe for generations of future St. Johnians.”
Dan Boyd, a 25-year resident of Lovango Cay, said St. John was being overwhelmed by “projects people don’t want,” including the Port Authority’s gravel parking lot which can hold 200 cars but is used by only a few commercial vehicles because of the high rates.
He also cited two water-based projects. The first was Cowgirl Bebop, a floating lounge slated for waters off Mingo Cay, which was approved by the Board of Land Use Appeals after being disapproved by the St. John Committee of Coastal Zone Management. The second is the newly proposed underwater memorial park between Lovango and Congo cays.
“Why are these being thrown down our throat? Why are we giving [our resources] away to commercial ventures? We’re losing our value and beauty,” Boyd asked.
Bryan said Virgin Islanders had largely been left out of the ownership of property and commercial ventures. “I’m a born Virgin Islander. I’m from Savan. I remember walking down the street, barefoot, short pants. I remember we used to have neighborhood grocery stores. Our people used to own them.
“And then all kinds of people came from all kinds of places. And they started owning stuff. Over 50 years, we native Virgin Islanders hardly own anything. What about what we wanted? What about our heritage? Nobody listened to that.
“I listen to the concerns about the development of St. John, and it’s the same thing that happened to every single one of our islands…The speed of development is not powered by the Virgin Islands government. We are a U.S. territory, we’re not like Tortola or Anguilla. We can’t say that only Virgin islanders can own. We don’t set the rules here. The Federal Government does; we only follow them. We set up systems to accommodate people from all over. Even our anthem says we welcome one and all.
“Then people come here for a certain amount of time and say they’ve been treated unfairly. Welcome to the club. We’ve been getting that for over a hundred years now.
“So as we move forward. We try to put people on boards and commissions with different backgrounds and perspectives to make these decisions.
“When I hear from people on St. John, I hear three different voices all at the same time. I hear the local people. I hear the snowbirds. And I hear the transplants that happen to live on St. John. So it’s very confusing to me, and that’s why we come out here to hear from you. Thank you for your input, and all these things will be considered.
“We’re trying to reclaim our marine industry, and that’s why we support things like having docks in Cruz Bay. We have boats lining up everywhere doing more damage, mashing up reefs and stuff without proper mooring fields. We’re trying to keep up with the growth. “
Bryan said because COVID closed down ports in the BVI, “We’ve been experiencing incredible economic activity getting back our charter boat system. That comes with problems, too. Tortola is going to open up again. How are we going to keep some of that business, so that finally people of St. John – Virgin Islanders– don’t have to leave from here. They could run a little boat; maybe be a captain; run an excursion, or work in some hotel or marina here and build a life for themselves. That’s all we’re trying to do.
“Keep advocating. I’ll listen to the voices, and we’ll make some decisions,” Bryan said.
The complete video of the meeting can be viewed here.