Published: July 26, 2012
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ST. THOMAS - The V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources conference room was standing room only for Wednesday's public meeting on proposed mooring fee increases.
People at the meeting expressed concerns ranging from the immediate financial impact to boaters and businesses to the long range impact the increases could have on the marine industry as a whole.
Wednesday was the first of three meetings to get community input on a proposed schedule of fee hikes for moorings located in territorial waters.
One set of interim fees are proposed to be implemented in 2013, while the government finalizes a more permanent schedule of fees to be implemented in 2014. Both fee schedules would have to be approved by the Senate and the governor before DPNR could implement them.
DPNR Director of Enforcement Roberto Tapia said mooring fees have not been increased since 1986.
All mooring sites in the territory must be approved by DPNR and an annual fee is assessed for using the mooring. DPNR does not provide the equipment or install the moorings, but essentially charges rent for the ocean floor that the mooring is anchored to.
Many of the testifiers at Wednesday's hearing agreed that fees have been frozen for too long, and that it is reasonable for them to be raised to accommodate the expenses to operate the department. However, the new fees proposed - some a 700 percent increase from the current fees - will kill the marine industry, many said.
Maurice Kurg said he has watched the marine industry in the territory die over the past 20 years. He said the over-regulation of the industry in the U.S. Virgin Islands has forced out many of the charter boats and other vessels that used to do business here.
"This is a decision that needs to be made strategically," he said.
Boyd Sprehn, commodore of the St. Thomas Yacht Club, said that the club has one of the largest mooring fields in the territory. The club currently pays about $15,000 a year to DPNR in mooring fees, even though the club maintains and inspects the moorings and ensures that all the boats are properly registered.
"We've effectively taken over the work of DPNR," Sprehn said.
With the proposed increases, the yacht club will be paying $65,000 to $70,000 a year, he said.
He cautioned DPNR officials that the proposed increases will cause boat owners to pack up and leave.
"People will pull out on trailers, they will move out of the territory," he said. "We will not see those boats ever again."
He said it has happened before, where higher fees and more regulations have forced boaters out of the territory and the economy was hit hard. The marine industry never recovered, he said.
"We've seen that show before, it cost these islands dearly. Don't do it again," Sprehn said.
Paige Passano of Budget Marine said while she runs a retail business, it is completely dependent on the health of the marine industry.
"Your proposal is going to affect my business, I know that," she said.
She pointed out that if the marine industry takes a hit, it will impact the territory's economy. While DPNR may get some additional revenues from boaters, the government as a whole will likely see a drop in Gross Receipts Taxes from the many businesses that depend on the marine industry, Passano said.
Kathy Mullen said she used to have a mooring in the U.S. Virgin Islands but has since moved her boat to the British Virgin Islands. She said most of the charters and boat owners will simply not pay higher fees.
"If they get out of scale, boats don't always complain very loudly, they just move on," she said.
Benita Martin stood up and said she does not own and boat and is not a part of the marine industry, but she has a 15-year-old son who is interested in it. She said she came to the meeting Wednesday to ensure that the industry is kept alive for the next generation of Virgin Islanders.
"I want to make sure that the industry is in tact and preserved for the future," she said.
DPNR Commissioner Alicia Barnes said the public hearings are just the first step in developing a new fee schedule. She said the proposed fees are not set in stone and the whole point of the public meetings is to get feedback from the people directly impacted.
The higher fees are not a "revenue generating" initiative, she said.
"Associated with this will have to be additional services and also infrastructure improvements as well," Barnes said.
The new fees are necessary to help the department perform its duties, especially as new pending federal regulations are being discussed, she said.
For example, the U.S. Coast Guard has sent down a nationwide directive that will place some of its vessel inspection responsibilities on local government agencies like DPNR, Tapia said.
Barnes said she will be looking to the Virgin Islands Marine Economic Development Council for guidance and input as the department moves forward with the proposed fees and, in the future, a larger mooring plan for the territory.
The council was created by an executive order issued by Gov. John deJongh Jr. in 2009, but has never met. It is supposed to be made up of representatives from the various aspects of the marine industry, and according to Barnes the members have already been picked.
The people at Wednesday's meeting wanted to know who was on the council and how they could join. No one in the room seemed to be a member, and the interest was great.
Barnes said she did not know the specifics, but that she was looking forward to the council's activation so it can assist the department moving forward with issues that affect the marine industry.
"You are the user community and we value your actual on-site and on-scene experience," she told the people crammed into the conference room.
"I am asking that we move forward cooperatively," Barnes said. "It is a partnership."
The next meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. tonight at the Westin on St. John, and for 6 p.m. Friday at the V.I. Port Authority conference room at Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix.
- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email email@example.com.Proposed mooring fee increase to be implemented in 2013
Mooring fee - The current $5 per foot will increase to $8 per foot annually.
Anchoring fee - The current $2 per foot will increase to $5 per foot monthly.
Multi-status mooring - The current $5 per foot will increase to $10 per foot annually.