Sept. 25, 2004 – The Environmental Association of St. Thomas-St. John mixed beach fun, learning and environmental activism on Saturday during a "Take Back the Beaches" event.
Sunsi Beach was the environmental group's destination. There they had planned for a snorkel outing with a marine biologist, a beach cleanup and some time to relax and enjoy one of the territory's loveliest beaches. Just two things stood in their way: an 8-foot cyclone fence capped with razor wire, and an armed guard whose job is to stop people from accessing Sunsi along a trail that has been used for generations. (See "Armed Guards, Barbed Wire Fence Block Beach Path").
Sunsi is the latest to join a growing list of St. Thomas beaches which residents simply cannot get to from land without breaking the law by trespassing, or without walking through a hotel where locals often feel they aren't wanted. The Sunsi situation is unique only because of the armed guard – hired in July by the fence's and property's owners, Richard and Lana Vento.
At the heart of the issue is what EAST President Carla Joseph calls "the ambiguity of the Open Shorelines Act." The act clearly states that access to the territory's beaches cannot be denied to those approaching from the water, but according to Joseph the act is less clear about those heading to the beach from land.
No worries for EAST on Saturday, though, because the group planned to access Sunsi by water. And so, more than 30 St. Thomas residents and visitors met in the morning on Coki Beach where a boat was idling in the shallows, waiting to take them two bays over to Sunsi. There, they could exercise their right to lie in the sun and play in the surf on the V.I. beach of their choice.
Setting ashore with a copy of the Open Shoreline Act and a tape measure in hand, Jason Budsan, a well-known St. Thomas activist, and Lawrence Benjamin, a long-time EAST supporter, marked out the group's legal access to Sunsi with a roll of yellow police tape. "If you go beyond the yellow line, you're breaking the law," Budsan shouted to the crowd on the beach as they stripped down to bathing suits and slapped on sunscreen.
Joseph has made it clear in numerous public statements that EAST supports property owners' rights as well as responsible development. What she and EAST take exception to is when property rights and development conflict with historic land access to beaches.
The loss of Sunsi has been a galvanizing issue for the community and for EAST, according to Dalma Simon, a member of the group's board. Simon said Saturday that the event brought six new members into the ranks of the environmental group.
With the crowd gathered around them, Joseph and Simon made an appeal for people to get more involved in the life of the community. The two explained that EAST is pushing for legislation to protect the right of Virgin Islanders to access beaches from land. "But we cannot do this if more people don't get involved," she said, adding that EAST needs more members.
Simon put it simply, saying, "It's not like we have coal in the ground here. These beaches are one of our only natural resources. They bring tourists; they belong to all of us."
Simon explained that in its fight to regain Sunsi the group is currently attempting to document the history of public access to the beach. "We need to know if you've used the trail and for how long," he said. One man said he's been using the trail for 20 years; another woman offered that she's been walking down the hill to the beach since 1973. Simon urged them all to call him with their stories.
Speeches finished, the morning moved on into the afternoon like any other day at the beach. Simon's infant daughter, Deja, played around in the sand with Mom nearby watching. A group of kids climbed along the sharp rocks of the surrounding bay. A knot of half a dozen people argued local politics in the shade, while others stretched out under the sun on towels and blankets. Many pitched in to do a quick beach clean up.
The water was rough and still murky with runoff from the rains that followed Tropical Storm Jeanne through the territory, but that didn't stop Elizabeth Ban, marine adviser for the University of the Virgin Islands, from leading an intrepid group of snorkelers on a guided tour of the bay's marine life.
Simon explained the beach day is part of a larger EAST effort to become a more active organization. "We're trying to do one group activity every month," he said.
Recent outings have included a hike to Black Point from Brewer's Bay and an adventurous snorkeling trip to Neltjberg on the Northside. To find out more about what EAST is up to, or if you have your own Sunsi story, you can contact the group at 774-1837.
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