A balance must be found between the community’s need for recreation facilities and neighbors’ concerns about noise and crowd sizes at Oppenheimer Beach, according to several testifiers at a Committee on Culture, Historic Preservation, Youth and Recreation hearing at the St. John Legislature Building in Cruz Bay Thursday night, which drew about 70 people.
"There are challenges,” said St. Claire Williams, commissioner of Sports, Parks and Recreation, “but we need to balance the need of the community and the use of the facility in a manner to not cause harm or damage to the facility.”
"Oppenheimer is unique with its deed restrictions governing how the facility can be used and managed," Williams said.
While Oppenheimer Beach is owned by the Virgin Islands government and overseen by the Department of Sports, Parks and Recreation, covenants on the land prohibit any businesses on the property, restrict the use of amplified music, call for the gate to be closed to vehicles at all times and more, Williams explained.
The beach and concrete structure on the land is the site of Sports, Parks and Recreations’ summer camp, numerous nonprofit fundraising events – as well as weddings and birthday parties – and should be coveted by the community, Williams added.
"This is a beautiful piece of property and all of us have a reason to ensure it is maintained," said Williams. "We should be proud of it."
But with so much of St. John, and most of the island’s beaches, restricted in use under the authority of the National Park, there is a lack of adequate community recreational sites, according to Phillip "Grasshopper" Pickering, one of the residents who testified before the committee regarding public use of Oppenheimer Beach.
"The closing of numerous venues has made Oppenheimer the only place we have left," Pickering said.
"Where on St. John can a for-profit group have gatherings?” he asked. “We used to have Pond Mouth and they took that away. We used to have Hawksnest Beach and they took that away. We used to have Maho Bay and that is gone – even Frank Powell Park."
"Oppenheimer was the last hope to have a fun-filled musical experience," said Pickering, a member of the reggae band Inner Visions.
Located between Hawksnest Bay and Peace Hill, the white sand shoreline of Oppenheimer Beach was deeded to the people of the Virgin Islands in 1980 by the daughter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. When Oppenheimer bought the property from the Gibney family in the 1960s, the deed included several covenants protecting the area, explained testifier Eleanor Gibney, who lives down the beach from the Oppenheimer facility.
"The deed included reasonable restrictions including prohibition of businesses, allowing only a single family structure and having first right of refusal if the property was offered for sale," said Eleanor Gibney, whose parents sold the property.
The land was transferred to the V.I. government in February 1980 and has been operated under the authority of the Department of Sports, Parks and Recreation since. Hurricane Hugo destroyed the original structure on the property with a new building constructed following the storm.
Trouble began when that building began to be frequently rented out and often for inappropriate uses, Gibney explained.
"There would be heavily amplified music, frequent fights and gunfire in the surrounding streets with police summoned to the area repeatedly," she said. "There were many activities that were inappropriate and even a ‘Girls Gone Wild’ show filmed there. For the Gibney family, the deed restrictions had come to the forefront."
The Gibney family is asking for fair and consistent rules for the facility, Eleanor Gibney added.
"Our concern with the music is the volume of the music, not the type of music," she said. "We are asking for fair, consistent and respectful rules."
Use of Oppenheimer Beach is now restricted to nonprofit groups and individuals between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. with no amplified music allowed.
Pickering said that, despite those covenants in place, if people want to have live music at Oppenheimer Beach, they should be allowed. "I understand there are some clauses in there, but this is what the people want," he said.
"The people should be the ones who decide what happens there. I don’t want to hear what one woman wanted when she deeded the land and I don’t want to hear what one woman wants now."
Emmanuel "Mano" Boyd, who also testified at the hearing, said the community needs a space like Oppenheimer Beach to host live concerts.
"St. John needs such a place because the Park has so many restrictions," said Boyd. "We St. Johnians feel pushed back. This was willed to the people and should used by the people – with reasonable restrictions, sure. The music can be turned down and the area needs to be kept clean."
While the size and noise level of events should be monitored and regulated, Oppenheimer Beach should continue to be a community gathering space, Boyd added.
"It should be used for birthdays and weddings," he said. "Oppenheimer Beach should always be used by St. Johnians."
The biggest issues at Oppenheimer Beach are the noise levels and the crowd sizes, explained Teri Gibney, who lives next door to the facility and operates a small business renting two cottages on her property.
"The most serious problems are the loudness of the music and when there are huge numbers of people with no respect for my property," Gibney said. "Having alcohol and loud music and 400 people there disrespecting the whole area, that’s hard to live with."
With such a beautiful place protected for use by the Virgin Islands people, there should be a way for everyone to enjoy Oppenheimer Beach, according to the Commissioner of Sports, Parks and Recreation.
"We must find a way to be accommodating for the best interest of everyone," said Williams.
The Gibney family also thinks the area can be enjoyed by the community while respecting the neighbors.
"I wish for some kind of rules and regulations that work for everyone," said Teri Gibney. "I hope that we can work together to get something that works for everyone. I really want this to work for everyone on St. John."
Williams pledged to meet with Pickering, other concerned residents and the Gibney family at Oppenheimer Beach to reach an agreement on how the facility should be used.
Pickering also offered several suggestions to decrease sound travel in the area, including building a platform facing the water and erecting a wall along the property line.
Sen. Myron Jackson, chairman of the Committee on Culture, Historic Preservation, Youth and Recreation, said that while public use of Oppenheimer Beach should be operated with clear and consistent regulations, St. John needs more recreational facilities.
"What is clear is the lack of planning for the needs of our communities in terms of parks and recreation," said Jackson. "This should not be the only facility on St. John for this purpose."
Sen. Tregenza Roach was the only other committee member present at Thursday night’s hearing. Committee members Sens. Shawn-Michael Malone, Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, Janette Millin Young, Terrence "Positive" Nelson and Kenneth Gittens were absent.
Sen. Craig Barshinger, although not a member of the committee, was also present.