Following reports that an estate manager had attempted to restrict access to the beach at Little Trunk Bay on Virgin Gorda, Natural Resources and Labour Minister Mitch Turnbull pointed out last Thursday that Virgin Islands law grants the public free access to all beaches in the territory.
“I am told that an estate manager of Little Trunk Bay Estates has took it upon himself to create his own rules for beach access,” Mr. Turnbull said during a House of Assembly meeting. “It is alleged that he is attempting to restrict access to the beach; harassing beach users by attempting to police their time spent at the beach; using obscenities toward persons who would confront him or ignore him; and erecting illegal signage to restrict parking.”
Mr. Turnbull, who did not name the manager, deemed such behaviour “illegal” and said it “propagates attitudes about ownership, race and status that we cannot allow.” He added that the scenario at Little Trunk Bay had been reported to him with extensive documentation, and he warned that residents’ rights must be protected.
“All property owners and managers who may be engaged in preventing beach access are asked to cease and desist immediately,” he said. “The public has the right to occupy the water and the shore of every beach up to the area of land that is owned privately.”
Mr. Turnbull added that the government welcomes “investment, development and integration” but not discrimination. “No BVI resident or their guests should be made to feel that they do not have the right to enjoy any BVI beach,” he said. “The BVI is a prime tourist destination; of this, we are well aware. Our beaches boast some of the world’s whitest sand and cleanest water and we welcome travellers from near and far to enjoy them both. However, let us be very clear, just as well, that these Virgin Islands are our home.”
A 1989 resolution of the then-Legislative Council, he said, “established the principle that beaches hold a special place in the natural patrimony of the territory and were to be managed to ensure continued traditional access and use.”
Against this backdrop, he said, several fundamental principles were established. “All shores and all beaches (whether natural, manmade or on private islands) within the Virgin Islands are vested in the Crown; there is always free access from any part of the waters to the shores and beaches; and there should be reasonable access across lands to shores and beaches,” he said.
Mr. Turnbull also quoted the definition of a beach included in the Virgin Islands Physical Planning Act of 2004: “‘That area of the coastal zone from the seaward limit of the foreshore, running inland to the vegetation line or other natural barrier, whichever is closer to the land ward limit of the foreshore; and a beach may consist of sand, stones, gravel, shingle, coral fragments or boulders.” The law, he noted, also includes guidelines for access to beaches that may be linked to a private property or resort. “There shall be at least one public landward access to every beach in the territory,” he quoted from the act.
“Where there is no alternative public landward access, traditional public use of a private landward access through an existing private development shall be sufficient grounds for establishing a public way over that access for the purpose of access to the beach by the public.”
Additionally, he quoted, “Where the only landward access to a beach is through an existing private development where traditional public use pursuant to subsection (2) has not been established, the Crown may acquire the right to public use of that landward access by gift, agreement, compulsory acquisition, or in exchange for other property, interest, or financial exemption, or by such other means as the minister may recommend.”
‘Traditional public use’
Mr. Turnbull added that the term “traditional public use” is defined as peaceable, open and uninterrupted enjoyment for a period of 20 years or more. Also under the law, he said, public landward access “shall be motorable” unless the subject minister decides otherwise.
“Any person seeking further clarification of this law or seeking support to enforce the law as a beach user may contact the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour’s Sea Bed Unit for assistance,” Mr. Turnbull said. Attempts to reach representatives of Little Trunk Bay Estates were not successful.