Nov. 20, 2002 – A fight to keep access to the Crown Bay area where Water Island commuters tie up their dinghies came to a head at the Port Authority's monthly board meeting on Wednesday.
At issue is a fence VIPA is erecting on the dock which, when locked, will prevent access to the Crown Bay area for the Water Island residents. The fence is located at the entrance to the eastern dock, also known as the Homeport Pier, where the Immel's Marine tugboat docks.
Senator-elect Louis Hill, appearing before the board in his capacity as St. Thomas and Water Island administrator, said the residents are being deprived of docking space because of a conflict between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Port Authority.
Hill suggested moving the fence back about 50 feet, which would allow the boaters access while still complying with Coast Guard security guidelines. He said he had spoken to Coast Guard officials in San Juan and they suggested that VIPA submit a revised proposal for the fence.
In correspondence, Henry Carr III, Port Authority legal counsel, told Charles S. Russell Jr., attorney for the Water Island residents, that until the security fence is completed, the Coast Guard will not permit cruise ships to dock at Crown Bay.
Further, Carr wrote, VIPA doesn't believe the Coast Guard will allow any easement over the pier to satisfy the Water Island residents. The security mandate "supersedes any authority that VIPA may otherwise have to provide Water Island's residents with an easement," he said.
Carr in his letter suggested the Water Island residents build a floating dock at their own expense near Haulover Marine on the west side of Crown Bay, or dock at Gregery East.
In his written response, Russell told Carr there is no USCG "mandate." He said the Coast Guard issued a Captain of the Port Order which required VIPA to submit a proposal for additional security. Russell wrote that a San Juan Coast Guard officer would be contacting VIPA officials to inform them that options under the order are "flexible."
Both Russell in his letter and Hill in his appearance in person Wednesday told VIPA that neither the Haulover nor the Gregery East option is viable. Russell said an attempt to relocate the St. Thomas terminus for persons traveling from Water Island is "unrealistic." And he said it would be unfair to deprive tax payers of a publicly funded access facility and suggest that at their own expense the build an alternate facility.
Additionally, Russell said moving the terminus could jeopardize the availability of federal funding for a new small boat dock and the current improvement of Phillips Landing on Water Island. The water route between the island and Crown Bay has been designated a federal highway route, making it eligible for the funding.
Hill stressed his conversation with the USCG authorities and asked VIPA simply to submit a revised proposal taking into consideration the Water Island residents' needs.
Gordon Finch, VIPA executive director, said, "If the Coast Guard is saying they had no involvement in this matter, that is simply false, if that's what they're saying. It's a matter of oversight; I don't understand why a big deal is being made of this."
Finch continued, "It's a very small part of fencing that needs to be adjusted. We need to approach the Coast Guard with a solution — it's just that simple."
Later Wednesday, in a telephone conversation, Lt. John Reinert, Coast Guard marine safety detachment supervisor on St. Thomas, said VIPA would have to submit a revision of the security plan it submitted in July. "The Coast Guard is responsible for security of the waterway, ships and all the Crown Bay facility," he said. Moving the fence 50 feet "might sound really simple," he said, "but it's not automatic. We have to look at it and make sure the security needs are met."
Finch told Port Authority attorney Don C. Mills to meet with Carr Wednesday afternoon and work out a revised proposal to be submitted to the Coast Guard, and to report their findings to Hill. Calls to Mills were not returned Wednesday afternoon. Hill said late Wednesday he had not heard back from VIPA.
In other matters:
– Romeo Lloyd, Port Authority financial officer, said VIPA finished Fiscal Year 2002 with a loss of $10 million, much of it because of the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the mainland. The financial breakdown was not made available to the news media.
Finch said that VIPA has had to draw from its cash accounts to make up for the board's moratorium on increasing landing and passenger fees. (See "VIPA puts off fee hikes, cuts its FY2003 budget".) He said the authority "took $2.5 million out of our savings account."
The airport fees issue will resurface next March. Finch said aviation fees will have to be increased to keep the authority solvent.
– Pamela Richards, VIPA board chair, announced the formation of a search committee to seek a new executive director to replace Finch, who announced in April that he would be stepping down at the end of the year.
Some board members appeared surprised at her announcement. Laughing, Leslie Milliner said, "It's a done deal." He did not elaborate. Richards responded only that board member Robert O' Connor would chair the committee.
When Finch was approached about the matter before the meeting started, he simply smiled. "That's not up to me," he said. "That's the board's decision."
In an interview in May, Finch offered no suggestion as to a successor. "I gave early notice so they can make that determination," he said, referring to the VIPA board. He added that "there is expertise within" the Port Authority. (See "Leaving by choice makes Finch unique right now".)
Board members attending Wednesday's meeting were Wayne Callwood, Public Works commissioner; Milliner; O'Connor; Dean Plaskett, Planning and Natural Resources commissioner; Richards and Iver Stridiron, attorney general. Kent Bernier, assistant to the governor for economic affairs, was absent.
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