Standing straight and tall and speaking firmly, John Tranberg, who turned 100 in April, spoke eloquently to the V.I. Legislature on Thursday about his life on St. Croix and his desire to have the government turn his land at Creque Dam into a park for future generations.
The Committee on Culture, Historic Preservation, Youth and Recreation heard from Tranberg as it enthusiastically considered a resolution celebrating his centenary birthday and urging the government to buy the property. [Bill 31-0355]
"I want the government to take it over and keep it for the people of the Virgin Islands," Tranberg said. "I have seen so many changes in the Virgin Islands," he continued, going on to talk about some of those changes, some for the worse, and how he would like to see Virgin Islanders more united and with more community spirit.
The property, up the steep Creque Road, is some of the most beautiful on St. Croix, with huge moss-covered trees and craggy rocks astride a clear flowing stream and the 1940s-era dam built by the U.S. Navy.
Sen. Positive Nelson, the resolution’s sponsor, said, "Mr. Tranberg has done what most Virgin Islanders who own property should do. He has preserved it for future generation. … Mr. Tranberg has refused to sell this property to private interests."
Nelson continued, "I believe it is only appropriate not only that we honor and commend Mr. Tranberg, but that we honor him by preserving this piece of land by putting it into the territorial park system. It would hurt us as a territory for this land to fall into private interests."
Former Sen. Ronald Russell said the park would "be a great attraction for St. Croix" and "it will be an honor for the people of the Virgin Islands to acquire this property from him while he is still alive."
The land, Plot No. 14AB North Hall, was leased by the V.I. government and used as a quarry from 1929 to 1940. Several decades after the quarry closed, zoning laws went into effect in the territory and the land was zoned agricultural, prohibiting a rock quarry.
The Legislature has authorized the V.I. government to negotiate the purchase of the property at least three times. Pricing of the property has been a barrier in the past. In 2010, the Legislature again authorized the government to buy Tranberg’s property, this time after negotiating a price based on market value, and authorized several payments, over time, from the Land Bank Fund to buy the land.
In 2010, the Land Bank Fund had roughly $2 million. There was no testimony Thursday concerning the availability of funding. Sen. Myron Jackson said that if the government had set aside payments in the past, it would not be a difficulty today.
Senators were very supportive of the idea, waxing poetic about the beauty of the spot and telling stories about swimming, washing cars or just going there to enjoy the shade and tranquility.
"I really do hope the administration will expedite the acquisition of this land," Sen. Sammuel Sanes said.
Tranberg, a native of St. Croix, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944 and served four and a half years as a logistic officer. At that time, the Tranberg’s family farm supplied the majority of the fresh milk and produce to the people in Frederiksted. During the mid-1950’s, Tranberg also worked for Sanford and Sons and Meridian Engineering.
In 2014, he was honored by the 43rd annual Agriculture and Food Fair Committee as the livestock farmer of the year and recognized as the oldest living farmer ever honored at the Agrifest Fair. Tranberg’s huge senepol bull, Thomas, has also been showcased at the Agrifest Fair for many years.
In 2012, the Legislature passed a resolution honoring his younger brother Otto Tranberg.
Voting to approve the resolution after a minor amendment were Sanes, Nelson, Jackson, Sens. Marvin Blyden, Novelle Francis, and Kenneth Gittens. Sen. Tregenza Roach was absent.
The committee also heard testimony on a bill sponsored by Nelson, Sens. Kurt Vialet, Neville James and Clifford Graham to require public and private employers to pay employees time and a half for working on July 3: Emancipation Day, the day in 1848 the people of St. Croix successfully forced Denmark to end their enslavement.
The bill [Bill 31-0346] would also declare the week surrounding that day, including July 4, be declared "Freedom Week" and mandate commemorative events and programs in the schools and on public television.
Labor Commissioner Catherine Hendry testified that federal holidays such as July 4 do not require paid leave or time and a half and "these benefits are a matter of agreement between an employer and an employee."
Chenzirah Kahina of the V.I. Caribbean Cultural Center at the University of the Virgin Islands urged senators to amend the proposal so that a committee of designated officials would be responsible for making sure events happen and to give it funding. Otherwise, it could languish unfulfilled as other mandates in the past have, she suggested.
Senators were broadly supportive of the measure and testimony focused on the historical and cultural significance of the date, along with its potential as a major tourist attraction. But several expressed concern over whether small businesses could afford the cost of extra pay.
Sanes said he was concerned the bill "might put a financial burden on local businesses," although he agrees local culture and history is not being taught enough to V.I. youth.
"We need to see the financial impact on small businesses," he said, suggesting the bill be held until the committee could get testimony from the Chamber of Commerce and local businesses. "Nevertheless, it doesn’t take away from the importance of celebrating our history and educating our young people," Sanes said.
The committee voted unanimously to hold the bill just until the next time it met, to get more testimony and potentially amend it.