After getting an earful from local boaters about the gun-toting sweep through Coral Bay Wednesday by enforcement officers from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, DPNR Commissioner Alicia Barnes said Friday an internal investigation has been launched into allegations of intimidation and improper enforcement actions by the officers.
The boaters complained to Barnes at a Thursday meeting on proposed mooring and anchoring fee increases as well as by email, phone and mail.
“On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, my office received complaints from several St. John residents about DPNR officers brandishing weapons and cutting mooring lines in the Coral Bay area,” Barnes said in a prepared statement.
Boaters complained that the enforcement officers put violation stickers on boats the officers believed weren’t registered, demanded that pedestrians show their identification and waved guns around.
“I consider these allegations of intimidation to be serious, and have solicited the assistance of the Attorney General’s office to look into these claims,” Barnes said.
Enforcement Director Roberto Tapia said in the statement that his officers were involved in a weeklong initiative in Coral Bay to rid the area of illegal moorings and to enforce the law on “many” unregistered vessels in that area. He said this effort was initiated by written correspondence and verbal requests from the many St. John residents who have registered vessels and legal moorings and by concerned Coral Bay residents who want to see increased enforcement in the bay.
“Nobody asked for this. We were only looking for help in removing sunken vessels,” Coral Bay resident Thatcher Lord said, disputing Tapia’s allegation that enforcement actions were called for by boaters.
Lord, Coral Bay Marine owner Sandy Mohler and Coral Bay Community Council President Sharon Coldren welcomed the internal investigation.
“What they did was wrong, unacceptable and illegal,” Mohler said.
She said that security cameras in Coral Bay caught a lot of the officers’ actions on tape and will be posted on YouTube.
Mohler and other residents have launched a letter writing campaign to Government House to protest what they see as DPNR enforcement’s heavy-handed ways.
“This is not Syria, and as freedom-loving Virgin Islanders we won’t accept being targeted,” Mohler wrote in her letter to Gov. John deJongh.
She said that “the officers were also observed allowing friends they recognized pass through with unregistered vessels with a wink and a smile.”
“If there is a double standard here, it will negatively affect the future of the V.I. marine industry and economy,” Mohler wrote to the governor.
Coldren also wrote to deJongh after the Wednesday incident. She said that the officers are focused on people who have registered boats and aren’t breaking the law rather than looking for the ones without registrations or who have abandoned their boats.
She said the Community Council looked into getting rid of the derelict boats by using grants but the cost is prohibitively expensive at around $10,000 for each boat. Coldren said when it became apparent that funding wasn’t there to remove the boats, the organization stopped counting them.
Government House spokesman Jean Greaux said that the governor has not yet received any letters concerning the boaters’ complaints but expected them to arrive. He said that the governor is waiting for the internal investigation to conclude before commenting.
Both Mohler and Lord were among the approximately 140 people who attended DPNR’s meeting Thursday at the Westin Resort and Villas conference room.
Barnes acknowledges that while the scheduling of the initiative may have been untimely, it was in no way connected to the proposed increase of mooring fees.