Aug. 4, 2005 A development deal is in the works that, if finalized, will enormously change the Great Maho Bay area on St. John.
"This is an environmental and ecological nightmare for Maho Bay," Joe Kessler, Friends of the Park president, said.
Currently, V.I. National Park owns a gorgeous stretch of white sandy beach at Great Maho Bay as well as the North Shore Road that runs along side it.
The 438 acres inland across the North Shore Road have a complicated ownership. The acreage is not divided into individual owners, but rather by shares. The park has three shares, the Trust for Public Land has one, and Marsh family heirs own seven for a total of 11.
"It's always been private, but gives the appearance of being part of the park," Kessler said.
The land in question is one of the many privately-held in holdings within the national park boundaries.
Six of the seven heirs have given businessman James Simons options to buy their shares of the 7/1l owned by the all the heirs. Kessler said one heir isn't interested in selling.
The Trust for Public Land also owns a total of four acres on either side of the 438 acres, creating bookends on the larger property. These pieces include the one-acre parcel on the inland side at the southern end of Great Maho Bay and another three acres where the North Shore Road bends sharply to the east. A trailer currently sits on that property.
The matter of dividing the 438 acres has been in court for many years, but the offer by Simons puts a face on the picture.
Simons is the New York-based president of Renaissance Technologies Corp., a private investment firm he founded.
St. Thomas attorney George Dudley, who represents Simons, said his client is an "environmentalist."
Dudley said the park's and Trust for Public Land's share of the property comes to about 176 acres, with about 264 acres owned by their heirs.
"He has a contract to acquire the 264 acres," Dudley said of his client.
Dudley said that Simons is currently negotiating in hopes of getting a contract for the park's and Trust for Public Land's shares.
Becky Bremser, project manager at Trust for Public Land in Florida, said the organization would consider giving up its land in exchange for a conservation easement for "something huge."
"If we could protect the majority of Maho Bay through a conservation easement, we would be able to work something out," she said.
She said negotiations are just beginning on the matter.
Kessler said the idea of a conservation easement has been tossed around, but said there is no law currently on the books to enforce such a concept.
Dudley said that since the land is zoned R-1, residential, low density, it could hold anywhere from 300 to 600 homes if a developer bought the property instead of Simons. The R-1 designation allows two dwellings on a half-acre lot.
Dudley said that on the advice of his land planners, Simons wants to move the road inland. He said this would protect the environment.
Currently vehicles park along the North Shore Road and occasionally, directly on the beach. Dudley said Simons would create a parking area away from the beach, with access to the beach from the parking lot.
Dudley said that today, no agency would allow a road to be built that close to the shore, but when the North Shore Road was built in 1961, people were less environmentally aware.
However, Kessler said moving the road would impede access to the beach, particularly for people with mobility problems.
"It's the flattest beach around," Kessler said.
Indeed, Multi, Design for People picked this beach as the place for disabled participants to get into the water in its recent Building a Destination for All 2005 symposium because it was easily accessible.
"This is a key beach," Kat Darula of Multi, Design for People said Thursday.
She said without this beach, it would be difficult for the island to promote itself as accessible to disabled tourists.
Bremser said Trust for Public Land would want to ensure that the public had access.
Dudley said Simons also wants to build a dock at Great Maho Bay near where a beach side building owned by the park currently stands.
While Kessler said that Simons wants to drain the wetlands and a pond as well as create a permanent opening to the sea, Dudley said that historically the area had a salt pond. He said it was blocked with rocks when the North Shore Road was built.
Kessler said Simons wants to build a "think tank" on the flatter part of the property. However, Dudley said what Simons will do with the property remains undecided, but a think tank to be called the Maho Bay Institute is one possibility.
"And he wants to have a home where his family and grandchildren are nearby," Dudley said.
Dudley said as part of the agreement with the heirs, he would pay them money and give them six-acre pieces of land on the hillsides.
Kessler said the National Park Service is open to these discussions because it fears the court will tire of trying to partition the property so it suits all interests. The park would then have no say in how the land it doesn't own is developed.
"It's the lesser of evils," Kessler said.
And, he said no one else has come forward with the $20 million to $30 million it would take to buy the property.
Park superintendent Art Frederick said that he can't talk about the matter because it is in litigation.
The piece of land under question was originally thought to be 370 acres in size, but Kessler said a recent survey showed it was much bigger.
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