As public opposition mounts ahead of a community town hall Thursday to discuss plans for a new boat ramp and parking at Hull Bay beach on St. Thomas, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources on Wednesday issued “pre-meeting information” in a bid to “clarify many of the misconceptions being spread on social media.”
More than 2,500 people had signed a Change.org petition against the ramp and other planned construction as of Wednesday morning, with many implying that the project is being done to benefit the owners of The Shack restaurant and The Hideaway at Hull Bay, the boutique resort featuring two villas and eight cottages that opened in January 2022 across the street from the beach.
The sentiments largely echo those that were expressed at a town hall meeting to introduce the plans in February 2022 — attended by more than 200 people, including local fishing families — where opposition to the proposal was oftentimes vociferous and some questioned why a new ramp design is needed at all.
Among the other concerns expressed at last year’s town hall, and now again ahead of Thursday’s meeting, are that the development is a precursor to developing Inner Brass, an unspoiled cay just north of Hull Bay; that the construction of permeable parking is to benefit The Hideaway’s restaurant The Shack, and a food truck, Nomads, at the west end of the beach, both of which have contributed to considerable parking congestion; that the new ramp will be significantly larger than the current one; and that 15 trees are being removed west of the ramp.
DPNR sought to put some of these concerns to rest with its information sheet ahead of Thursday’s meeting, which will be held at The Shack starting at 6 p.m. The designs are available for review on the DPNR website.
The project has been more than 10 years in the waiting, with funding finally allocated by the V.I. Legislature in 2021 after the current ramp “collapsed” in 2019, DPNR noted. Plans call for the new ramp to be about 20 feet longer than the existing structure to enable boaters to launch on a gentler slope and into deeper water than the current 2½ to 3 feet, Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol said last year, and again on Wednesday. Like the old ramp, the new one will be 12 feet wide, he said.
“The reason for the slight ramp extension is the users’ complaint that the existing ramp is too short and ends in about 2.5 feet of water, and to get into a decent water depth, users must put their vehicles almost fully into the water,” according to DPNR’s statement. “The new ramp will have a lower pitch and the extension will end in 4.5 feet of water, making it easier to launch vessels, without having to place one’s vehicle into the water. The extension of the ramp was part of the discussions going back to 2011 and was included in the 2013 designs.”
Regarding concerns that the new design will lead to beach erosion — as has happened at Mandahl Bay, critics at last year’s meeting noted — the ramp will be fortified with riprap on the sides to prevent scouring and protect it from significant wave action, DPNR said. And while the drawings show 15 trees being removed to construct parking, “the plans include leaving most shoreline Maho and Sea Grapes on the beach. A specific note in the drawing states that 10 of the trees removed for the project are to be replaced,” the agency said.
Additionally, the existing ramp will remain open during construction of the new one, so that fishers and recreational boaters can haul their vessels in the event of a ground sea or storm, DPNR said, addressing concerns raised at last year’s meeting that mariners would have to take their boats to the other side of the island to trailer them.
While many have questioned the need to change anything about the parking lot, which currently is largely dirt and gravel, DPNR said the area is subject to stormwater intrusion and potholes and scouring. It is proposing installing a permeable surface — meaning water can drain through it — to make the parking area less susceptible to stormwater impacts, it said.
DPNR originally conceived the parking area to include an erosion mat backfilled with sand and gravel, like the one at Lindqvist Beach on the island’s east end, but concern about the weight of trailers by the engineers resulted in an option that includes permeable pavers in addition to the erosion mat, it said.
“If one of the proposed systems or another system is finally selected, it is important to note that a final option should result in water infiltrating the ground and not sitting on the surface. The intent is to [construct] a sturdy parking surface that will withstand stormwater impacts and not result in craters/potholes over time or sediment polluting the water,” according to DPNR.
As for the construction being done to benefit private business owners such as Lee Steiner and his partners, “this is another false statement with no substantiating proof,” DPNR said.
“This project was initiated in 2011, prior to the existing owner of The Shack even owning property in Hull Bay. The scope of the project was extended to address parking for the vessel launch as parking specifically to address trailer use is a necessary part of planning a vessel launch,” according to DPNR.
“The parking area to the south of the ramp included in the project focuses on addressing what is consistently damaged by stormwater runoff and creates spaces for the parking of vehicles WITH TRAILERS after a vessel is launched. There are a few individual parking spaces reorganized, but the focus is on trailer parking,” the agency said, referring to the area on the west side of the ramp where trailers traditionally are parked. “The private establishment has ample parking of its own,” it said.
While The Hideaway has private parking for its villas and cottages that sit behind a gate along the road to Tropaco Point, The Shack was never required to provide spaces for its customers as the restaurant was grandfathered under long-ago zoning laws, according to last year’s meeting, a fact that has angered some locals. Parking has only become harder since the Nomads food truck opened, and it appears the plans now call for it to be moved to a beachfront location west of the ramp.
As for concerns that the construction is to facilitate the development of Inner Brass, DPNR said that “is completely false, and there is no proof to substantiate such a claim.” In fact, the V.I. Agriculture Department has secured more than $5 million through the USDA Forest Legacy Program to acquire 90.59 acres — 70 percent of the cay’s 127 acres — to preserve as green space that it is calling “Inner Brass Park,” DPNR said.
“That is the focus of the GVI with respect to the development of Inner Brass, not commercial development of the cay,” the agency said.
In a bid to keep order at Thursday’s meeting, attendees will be required to sign up at the beginning and state if they wish to provide comment to the department and engineers. Those who sign up will be called upon in the order in which they signed in to speak at the end of the presentation, DPNR said. Comments may also be submitted in advance to DFWelectronic@usvi.onmicrosoft.com.
As for the meeting location at The Shack, DPNR said previous comments at public meetings indicated having them at Hull Bay “were necessary to effectively engage the stakeholders that use the ramp, and it is the only location in that vicinity with the necessary public accommodations to hold a meeting of this size.”