Op-Ed: Magens Bay Senate Bill Could Be Disastrous

Before the storms: Magens Bay, seen in this spring photo from the trail, has been named one of the 10- most beautiful beachs in the world. Now it's been scoured by two hurricanes, but those who love it say it will return to its glory.
Magens Bay, seen in this spring photo from the trail, has been named one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world. (Source file photo)

My mother taught me that I was above no one, but neither was I below anyone. I have lived that truth in this community for sixty years. I grew up here and had a 37-year career with the V.I. Department of Justice. The public record will reflect that instances of my speaking out publicly on any issue have been extremely rare.

Magens Bay is different.

These words are mine. I speak only for myself. As a Virgin Islander (brought here as a child and now the parent of fourth-generation Virgin Islanders), I consider the sanctuaries of Magens Bay Park and Smith Bay Park to be two of the most precious resources we possess as Virgin Islanders. They are cherished by residents and visitors alike and are recognized internationally for their incredible beauty and environmentally sensitive stewardship. They are the sites of our birthdays, our celebrations, our reunions, our weddings, and yes, even our memorials. They are to my mind, two of the most perfect places on planet earth. They hold a special spot in the heart of every Virgin Islander at home or abroad. Conserving these natural gems and maintaining them for the benefit of the people of the Virgin Islands without discrimination is a sacred trust placed in the hands of seven men and women. Though voluntarily assumed, I feel the burden of that trust.

When I became a member of the Magens Bay Authority Board of Directors, it was to me, more solemn than when the Honorable Almeric Christian swore me in as a young lawyer before the V.I. Bar. As a board member, I assumed an obligation to preserve and protect Magens Bay (and later Smith Bay Park), to deliver it to future generations in as good or better condition than when it was placed in my care, and to put in place business practices that give Virgin Islanders a fair chance at providing the essential services needed to operate their properties. We have been dedicated to those goals ever since.

The Legislature is considering a change in the formation of the governing board of the Magens Bay Authority that could well cost this territory and its future generations of citizens beyond measure. The reasons for these changes may be debatable, but the effect of Bill No. 33- 0374 becoming law could be potentially disastrous for us and the heirs to our islands and culture.

Disguised as part of a routine review of the government’s myriad of boards and commissions, many of whom are dysfunctional to some degree, the Legislature has chosen among its early targets, what is widely and deservedly regarded as one of the most effective and functional boards in the territory. The Magens Bay Authority has been so successful in its mission primarily because Mr. Arthur Fairchild, in gifting the property to the people of the Virgin Islands, insisted that the Authority be insulated from the day-to-day political winds that, even at the time of the gift, all too often blew with more destructive force than a hurricane. It was a condition he held to. He was right. It has worked.

This is not to say the Magens Bay Authority is perfect. We have made amazing progress at bringing the management of the Authority into the 21st century, yet there is room for improvement. Our board is diverse in professional fields, experience and skill. As former Solicitor General of the Virgin Islands, I was charged with providing legal representation for all V.I. boards and commissions. The Authority’s board is by far one of the best run and most effective in the Territory. And yet, we continue to review ourselves and adopt better practices when and as they become evident. Members disagree often, but respect for our common goals as well as each other prevails. Strong opinions give way to mutual respect and a desire to achieve consensus. On one thing we agree: we all want only the best for the properties placed in our care.

When I joined the board, Mr. Dayle Barry was already a member. I quickly learned that he had begun to advocate for competitive bidding for the concession lease. But, in doing so, he was like a man whistling in the wind. He argued that the concession lease be allowed to expire and that the lease then be put out for bid to the public. I was happy to support him in this position. That view, that the selection of the new lessee for the concession will be a competitive bidding process, now prevails among the membership.

The only (and frustrating for the board) reason why we have had to agree to several short-term extensions of the current lease agreement (Mr. Ball having died, now with his corporate successors in interest, the Dimopoulis family) is that we have been in the midst of a major project to replace the current aging concession building with a new modern facility placed more strategically on the property and to include four vendor kiosks.

Constructing such a facility in the coastal zone is a complicated and time-consuming process not designed for the faint of heart. It has literally taken us years to obtain a CZM permit. Most recently, we were delayed months because the CZM committee could not muster a quorum. Of course, the incredible destruction of hurricanes Irma and Maria blew up everyone’s plans and our timeline. Member Robert Moron has been working diligently with FEMA to finance the reconstruction of the Irma-destroyed bathhouse No. 1 as a modern Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant facility at no cost to the Authority. And now, COVID-19 has brought with it many intervening considerations. We look forward to the approach of a vaccine, a return to normal, and movement on the new bathhouse and concession building projects. We also have much more work to do to prepare protocols for the eventual return of cruising and other tourists.

There is no question, however, that the next tenant of the concession will have entered into a lease with the Authority as a result of being successful in a competitive bidding process.

Aside from enacting bad policy and fixing that which is clearly not broken, the real risk here is that, as has been pointed out by our legal counsel and others, a previous legislature embarked on a course to change the makeup of the board and the attorney general of the Virgin Islands opined (persuasive in the law in the absence of a judgment by a court) that to do so would violate the Constitution of the United States. It would abrogate a civil contract. That is unlawful.

Please pay attention here: By adopting this legislation, we are risking the original gift of Magens Bay to the people of the Virgin Islands.

It may seem remote to the layman, but it is not. There are no guarantees that, should these misguided legislators persist in this pistarkle, there are not heirs of Mr. Fairchild in 2020 who would welcome the idea of a return of a priceless parcel of real estate such as this one into the Fairchild Estate. Consider for a moment the courts, after an expensive and protracted legal battle, finally voiding the original deed of the gift because of what the V.I. Legislature is about to do. No matter how incomprehensible such a result might be, it is a real risk. Where will our leaders be then?

Another important reason the Legislature should not alter the configuration of the board is that we are an example of best practices in board stewardship. The transparent results of our hard work in public and in the many hours of committee work that make our meetings so productive are clear for all to see.

Do not get me wrong. I love my legislators. I voted for many of them. But seriously folks, it defies reason that our senators, in a time of unchecked global pandemic and the severe economic crisis it has prompted, would use their time, energy and public resources to even consider such a foolish at best and reckless at worst course as this bill proposes.

You can stop this. Will you stand up for the Magens Bay Authority and our mission? If you approve of our stewardship of these resources, contact your legislators and demand that they vote “NO” on Bill No. 33-0374.  Period. The number is 340-774-0880 on St. Thomas and 340-773-2424 on St. Croix.

Then, perhaps the Authority can end this dangerous distraction and return our focus to where it belongs, improving the parks of the Magens Bay Authority and continuing our service to the people to whom they belong.

Elliott “Mac” Davis is an attorney who has practiced law in the territory for more than 40 years. He is married to Deborah Kreke Davis.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email