St. John Community Hears Public Presentation on Round Bay Management Plan

Coastal Zone Management Director Marlon Hibbert leads the Nov. 15 meeting in Coral Bay concerning the Round Bay Users Management Plan. (Source photo by Judi Shimel)

A proposed management plan for a portion of St. John’s eastern coast met with skepticism at a public meeting held in mid-November. Chief among the concerns of those attending the meeting for the Round Bay Users Management Plan were regulation and enforcement.

The official in charge of the Coastal Zone Management division at the Department of Planning and Natural Resources commiserated with participants’ complaints about lax law enforcement by DPNR. Director Marlon Hibbert called the situation frustrating and added that the limited number of agency enforcement officers have an overwhelming workload.

Planning and Natural Resources published the proposal Sept. 1, calling it a necessary step to “provide a structured way that organizes users and protects the integrity of the natural and cultural resources in the area …“ Hibbert said the need for such a plan became apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic when recreational and charter vessels were kept out of neighboring island ports and harbors and wound up anchoring by the dozen in Round Bay.

The area to be regulated by the plan, if approved, extends from part of the Coral Reef National Monument to Hansen Bay. It would designate areas for swimming, short-term mooring for excursions, longer-term mooring for visiting yachts, and points for shoreline access.

Residents and charter operators were in attendance, many with common concerns. The CZM director said his division heard from those who favored the plan and those who did not.

“We received comments both in support of what we have put out and also in opposition. And we have received some comments that we should rework the plan,” Hibbert said.

Community members and business operators asked Hibbert how effective any plan could be if there is no enforcement of infractions. “One of the biggest questions I have is law enforcement,” said charter boat operator Cleve Mahabir.

Others agreed that without having personnel ready to make sure any new rules are obeyed, a management plan would fail.

“You’re right. They have to go hand in hand,” Hibbert said. But then the director admitted that Planning and Natural Resources does have enough resources to do so.

The question then became what could be done instead. Leah Randall of Flyaway Charters asked if signage could help notify boaters about the new policies. “What’s the point of doing anything without enforcement?” Randall said.

Others asked if enforcement teams could be supplemented by local volunteers. One area resident, Ron Vargo, came to the meeting at the former Guy Benjamin Elementary School in Coral Bay with a tote bag filled with uprooted seagrass — evidence of the damage done by careless anchoring.

Vargo said he has approached boaters visiting Round Bay to let them know about existing rules against anchoring in seagrass beds. On one occasion, he said, a boater told him that unless Vargo had a badge, there was nothing he could say that they would pay attention to.

He also criticized the agency for falling short of its obligation to uphold the law. “We know for a fact there hasn’t been a single citation given in two years,” he said.

Another audience member asked how effective a new plan could be if some in the boating community are not even familiar with laws that already exist. At one point, it seemed the coastal zone director himself was among those who may not fully understand the law. Participant Dan Carr asked the director if Planning and Natural Resources had ever conducted an unbiased environmental survey of Round Bay. Hibbert said no.

When one audience member attending virtually pointed to an existing statute declaring Round Bay a protected waterway, Hibbert refuted the statement. “Round Bay is a restricted area with regard to speed of motorized vessels operating in the area and how far from shore they should operate,” he said.

Others attending the Nov. 15 meeting raised the prospect that the natural resources that are supposed to be protected by law in Round Bay are being sacrificed in order to accommodate those who profit through tourism.

“This is the beginning of the end, and I have seen this happen in every bay in the Virgin Islands,” said resident Eric Zucker. “ I’ve filmed Round Bay over the last two decades. The deterioration is devastating.”

Zucker also pointed out that some of the proposed mooring sites in the user management plan are being paid for by an organization representing the charter boat industry.

Hibbert admitted that some of the moorings are being paid for outside of the government. He called it frustrating that the agency did not have enough personnel to provide oversight or enforcement.

But he did not offer any suggestions about how Planning and Natural Resources could resolve the situation.