Delroy “Ital” Anthony, left, and Ronnie Jones, center, listen as Milton Samuel, right, makes a point during last week’s town meeting.
Access from Estate Mandahl through the south shore must be opened up, according to most residents who attended a Tuesday night, June 26, town meeting at the Julius E. Sprauve School cafeteria.
Hosted by the St. John People’s Agenda representative Delroy “Ital” Anthony and John’s Folly Learning Institute founder Alvis Christian, the meeting drew about 45 residents and representatives from V.I. National Park, Department of Public Works, V.I. Fire Department, V.I. Police Department and the Department of the Interior.
“We are here to talk about the road components of our island,” said Anthony. “This is about tourism, this is about public safety and this is our future.”
Discussion mostly focused on opening a second access road to the remote south shore neighborhoods of Estate Mandahl and Lameshur Bay.
Currently the only route in and out of the area is via the south shore road, which ends at Lameshur Bay.
“If there is an accident on the south shore area, it’s so isolated out there it isn’t fair,” said Gary Emmons. “If we can open the road, it could save someone’s life.”
Some residents at the meeting remembered a time when traveling through south shore was common place
“Why can’t the road be opened,” said Muriel Dalmida. “It used to be opened. We need a road out there.”
Residents in the area learned what it was like to be cut off during the heavy rains of the 2010 hurricane season which triggered land slides and cut off portions of the sole access road.
“When those roads were damaged by the land slides it was just by the grace of God that no one needed to go to the hospital,” said Winston Powell. “We were cut off then and it would have been bad if there was an emergency.”
Having a second access route is necessary, according to Anthony.
“Two years ago we were locked in,” said Anthony. “We can’t have that. We need to have another access route; it’s a necessity.”
While the issue of opening an alternative route to the south shore has long been a topic of discussion, with a population which continues to grow, it’s time to see action on this issue, explained Anthony.
“This is nothing new,” he said. “We’ve been asking for this for years. But it’s very important.”
“St. John is growing and we’re a growing population,” said Anthony. “We have to think of the generation that is coming next.”
“It’s time for someone to pick up the ball on this issue and run with hit,” said Harry Daniel. “It’s time for the National Park Service to get involved with the community and make this work. We also might have to fight the V.I. government to make this right.”
Reasons cited by residents to open an access road from Mandahl to Centerline Road via the L’Esperance trail included increased response times in emergencies ranging from fires to sickness and allowing families with in-holdings to use their land.
“L’Esperance needs to be opened up,” said Wilma Monsanto. “There are holdings in here that we can’t touch because we can’t get there. Opening that road would solve problems as far as the south shore neighborhoods are concerned.”
“I believe we can work with the park,” said Monsanto. “These roads can be opened up.”
The VINP was created more than 50 years ago and much has changed on St. John since then, explained Ronnie Jones.
“The bigger picture here is that we just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the park,” said Jones. “People here are related to the people who made that happen. It’s because of them that we have a VINP.”
“Things have changed and there are things that need to change,” he said. “We should always have access, not just during disasters. We don’t want the park to be a hardship; we want to see improvement.”
These roads used to be open and therefor can be opened again, according to Brian Smith.
“St. John is far more complicated than it was in the 1950s and 1960s and those roads were opened then,” said Smith. “Today we have more people and more development. We need those roads opened.”
Even tourists want to be able to drive from Lameshur to Cruz Bay without backtracking through Coral Bay, explained Anthony.
“Tourists come and have the same problem too,” he said. “They want to see more of the island and we want to move forward.”
Opening the road does not mean residents are against the park, Anthony added.
“We’re not against the birds and the bees,” he said. “We’re not saying destroy the park. We’re just saying this is a necessity and we can find a way to make it happen.”
As a Coral Bay resident and former road engineer as well as president of the Friends of VINP, Joe Kessler shared a different perspective on the issue.
“We need to prioritize,” said Kessler. “The main access road to Coral Bay is undermined and the hillsides continue to fall down. The road hasn’t been fixed.”
“Nothing has been done to solve this problem,” Kessler said.
Opening south shore would require serious drainage work to traverse the frequently flooded area, Kessler added.
“A south shore road would require major drainage engineering,” he said. “You’re talking about $20 to $30 million to service a community of a few hundred. We have to look at doing the most we can do with what we have to serve the most amount of people we can.”
A piece of legislation enacted in 1962 which allows VINP to maintain five named roads, yet retains ownership of the roads by the local government was cited by several residents as the legal okay to open the roads.
The act, however, does not specifically name the route from Mandahl to L’Esperance and left VINP officials with no answers for the public.
“I have no definitive answer about this document,” said VINP Deputy Superintendent Mike Anderson.
While the Department of the Interior could work with the local government on the road access issue, the directive must come the Virgin Islands, explained Basil Ottley, a field representative of Department of Interior’s Insular Affairs.
“Roads are not necessarily outside our scope, but there are other funds better suited to these types of projects like Federal Highway Transportation funds,” said Ottley. “We’re always willing to sit and see how funds can be leveraged for the community, but we must follow the priorities of the local government, who you elected.”
Despite a lack of answers, the town meeting offered residents a chance to express their views, explained Anthony.
“We are not going to get all of the answers tonight,” he said. “This is to get your concerns heard and to get a feeling for this issue. This is only the first of a series of meetings we are going to be hosting.”