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Local Officials and Experts Invited to Testify at Upcoming Congressional Committee Meetings

June 15, 2007 — Several local issues are on the agenda when a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee meets July 9 on St. Thomas and St. John.
The meetings will be held at 10 a.m. at Charlotte Amalie High School and at 6 p.m. at the St. John Legislature building. The Natural Resources Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, chaired by Delegate Donna M. Christensen, will hear from people invited to testify on a bill to extend the territory's limits to nine miles offshore, turn over federally owned submerged lands to the territorial government and lease land from the federal government for a school complex on St. John.
Only those invited to testify, not the general public, will be allowed to speak, said Christensen aide Brian Modeste.
The idea of using federal land for a school complex has been on the table for decades. (See "Governor Proposes Land Swap to Help Build K-12 School on St. John.")
St. John has two public elementary schools, one in Cruz Bay and one in Coral Bay. Most public high school students take the ferry to St. Thomas to attend Eudora Kean High School in Red Hook.
Julius E. Sprauve School in Cruz Bay is in the midst of the noisy and congested downtown area, and residents have asked for years that it be moved. Guy Benjamin School in Coral Bay faces infrastructure issues because of the age of its building.
A central St. John public school would probably combine the elementary schools and provide a high school for St. John students so they would no longer have to commute.
For many years, officials bandied about the idea of swapping land within V.I. National Park for the school. A piece of land mid-island in Catherineberg has been the most-talked-about spot.
However, the swap idea never materialized. Modeste said Friday that a lease of land for the school is now on the table.
St. John Administrator Leona Smith confirmed that the property in question is at Catherineberg, but said she's given up on the idea of leasing or swapping land from the park.
"We're in conversation with some private landowners," she said.
Smith said she couldn't provide any details because discussions were underway, but said that the property was "up in the country." This means that it lies outside of Cruz Bay proper.
Invitations for the St. John public hearing will go to Gov. John deJongh Jr., Sen. Carmen Wesselhoft, the national park superintendent and representatives from St. John community groups, according to a news release from Christensen's office.
Addressing the bill to extend the territorial waters from three miles to nine miles, Modeste said the need came about because of issues with Puerto Rico fishing. All states and territories except Puerto Rico have a three-mile offshore limit, but Puerto Rico's stands at nine.
"Our bill would equalize us to that of Puerto Rico," Modeste said. As things currently stand, he said, the Caribbean Fisheries Management Council mandates closures of fisheries within federal waters, but the closures fall to the V.I. government to enforce because more sit on the V.I. side.
With the boundaries extended, Puerto Rico would have to get more involved with enforcing closures, Modeste said. The bill has nothing to do with ongoing boundary issues with the nearby British Virgin Islands, he added.
However, he said that extending the boundaries to nine miles would not occur where it would infringe on BVI waters — the north and east sides of St. John, for example. The boundaries would extend westward toward Puerto Rico, as well as other directions, Modeste said.
Invitations to testify about the territorial waters issue have been extended to DeJongh; Sen. Alvin Williams, who chairs the Legislature's Planning and Environmental Protection Committee; Planning Commissioner Robert Mathes; Fish and Wildlife Division Director David Olsen; representatives from the Caribbean Fisheries Management Council; and fishermen representatives.
The proposal to have the federal government turn over submerged lands not currently included in national-park properties has its roots in the January 2001 declaration of 12,708 submerged lands off St. John as V.I. Coral Reef National Monument, Modeste said.
Modeste said he doesn't know of any submerged lands that fall into this category, but this bill was a preemptive move so the territory doesn't lose anymore submerged lands. After the area became a monument, the territory and the federal government disputed ownership, with the federal government prevailing. (See "Reef Monuments Declared Federally Owned.")
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