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Saturday, January 28, 2023



by Lynda Lohr Nov. 5, 2001 – "Improve your communication with St. John residents" some legislators advised V.I. National Park Supt. John King and National Park Service deputy Southeast Region director Patricia Hooks Monday evening.
The advice was handed out at a Senate Committee of the Whole meeting held in Cruz Bay to discuss taxi drivers' objections to new park tour operator fees and related matters.
But there were St. Johnians present who said taxi drivers had no one but themselves to blame for things they were complaining about.
More than a hundred people crowded into the Legislature Building for the hearing on the park plan to charge land-based tour operators and taxi associations permit fees starting Jan. 1. King was present for a discussion of the same topic on Oct. 25 at a meeting with taxi drivers organized by Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd.
Many taxi drivers at both meetings said they were incensed about the plan to require them to pay an annual fee to conduct tours through the park. All other operators of tours within the park already pay fees.
Responding to criticism that the park did not reach out to the community when formulating the new commercial services plan that calls for the fees, King said park officials had held numerous public meetings. He said they were well covered by the news media and that he had taken to the airwaves himself with information about the implementation of the plan. But some senators said he didn't reach the people affected.
"It's really troubling that you did not get out of the office and get to the streets," Sen. Carlton Dowe said.
Harry Daniel, who worked as the park's chief of enforcement following his retirement from the Police Department, had a different response. "The park had plenty of public meetings, but quite a lot of us did not show up," he said.
Only when things reached crisis proportions did St. John residents come out, Daniel said. He also said he had told the taxi drivers as far back as 1992 that of all the national parks, only the Virgin Islands one allowed taxi drivers to operate without a permit. He said he told them then to form an organization to work out a deal with park officials on permits and fees.
King later said that taxi drivers declined to do so, even though park authorities pointed out that it would help them make more money from the tour companies.
Several taxi drivers complained about a provision of the commercial services plan that limits the number of visitors who can frequent popular places within the park such as Trunk Bay at any given time. "When people come, how are you going to tell them they can't go?" Calvin Hill asked. He said the restriction would drive people away from St. John.
However, Elvis Marsh said Trunk Bay was overused even 20 years ago, when he worked for the park as a beach supervisor. "Trunk Bay is still being devastated. The underwater snorkel trail looks like a ruin," he said, referring to one of the beach's main visitor attractions.
Numerous people also complained about the $4 admission fee currently charged at Trunk Bay, but Marsh said if the fee wasn't charged, Trunk Bay would look even worse.
Taxi driver Elvis Sprauve, who also is a police officer, called on the senators to work with the drivers to fight implementation of the permit fees. "All of the people of St. John are behind the taxi drivers," he claimed.
Sprauve also said: "I will not pay no user fees to go onto national park property. If they put a gate up there, we're going to tear it down."
King said the park was willing to negotiate on the cited $750 annual fee for taxi associations and tour companies, as well as the $300 fee for independent operators and association members who moonlight by taking people on tours. Taxi drivers who only transport people from point A to point B within the park are not required to have permits.
King also said he was willing to discuss whether stopping at an overlooking for a "photo opportunity" while driving passengers from point A to point B constituted a tour, an issue that has been a sticking point for the drivers.
King said these matters could be discussed in a small working group.
While the meeting was at various times raucous, it turned downright ugly during Sen. Norma Pickard-Samuel's time at the microphone. She stated that the National Park Service should give land back to the people of St. John. She said there were too few black people at a park public meeting she attended at the Ritz-Carlton on St. Thomas. Then she claimed that Hooks was smirking.
When Hooks sought to respond to that remark, Pickard-Samuel would not let her do so. Hooks turned to King with an aside, which prompted Pickard-Samuel to criticize her for talking while she, Pickard-Samuel, was at the microphone. "You don't respect us," Pickard-Samuel said.
Hooks later said she was at the meeting to listen, not to respond to personal comments.
A number of people at the meeting said that park fees should be paid only by visitors, not by residents. "You cannot deny us what is rightfully ours," Lorenzo Liburd said.
All legislators but Sens. Norman Jn. Baptiste, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg and Alicia "Chucky" Hansen attended the meeting.

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