Should the Virgin Islands government swap an uninhabited cay off St. John for property within the Virgin Islands National Park in order to secure a site for a new school on St. John?
That’s the question the public must decide within the next 10 days for the current plan to build a new school to move forward.
Sept. 22 is the deadline to submit comments to the National Park Service about its proposal to exchange 11.2 acres within the Virgin Islands National Park in Estate Catherineberg for Whistling Cay, a 17.97-acre island off Mary Point on the north shore of St. John.
The NPS proposal was first presented to the public in an online hearing in April after the two properties were appraised and found to be of nearly equal value.
After a 30-day comment period, the Park Service collated the responses and presented the land swap as the best possible alternative in a 79-page report published in August.
Before a final decision is reached, members of the public can submit written comments to this plan by visiting https://parkplanning.nps.gov/stjohnlandexhange and clicking on “Open For Comment.”
St. John has only one K-8 public school – the Julius E. Sprauve School – which was severely damaged by Hurricane Irma in September 2017. For the past five years – except during the COVID-19 pandemic – elementary and junior high students have attended classes in modular units on the adjacent ballfield in Cruz Bay.
High school students from St. John have always had to commute to St. Thomas by ferry to attend a public school. The land exchange would provide the Department of Education with sufficient land to construct St. John’s first K-12 school.
Following the hurricanes of 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency determined that the extent of repairs to the Sprauve School made it eligible for a complete rebuild using federal funds.
After holding a public meeting and restarting negotiations with the Park Service, V.I. Education officials moved forward to enact a plan to obtain a site for a school that has been under serious consideration since 1992.
The NPS concluded that a land exchange between the territorial and federal governments is the best plan partly because a decades-long search to find privately owned land hasn’t succeeded.
Nearly 60 percent of the land on St. John lies within the boundaries of the V.I. National Park, but “the National Park Service has no legal authority to simply donate land. Federal law prohibits conveyance of property from National Parks,” the report states. In general, only Congress can change the boundaries of a National Park.
At the meeting in April, Salman Eurabaie, a supervisory realty specialist with the National Park Service, said, “It’s really hard to take land out of the park. It’s like locked in a vault forever.”
But a number of ancestral St. Johnians continue to press for another alternative.
“We don’t want a swap,” said Lorelei Monsanto. “The largest landholder is the VINP, and the stipend they give us (in lieu of property taxes) is less than $50,000. They’re not pulling their weight. How much more of our precious resources do we have to give up?”
Several native St. Johnians have pointed out that their ancestors sold or donated land to establish the park and are angered at the notion that the local community has to do more to acquire land for a school.
In a Daily News editorial published in April, Gilbert Sprauve, a retired professor and a former V.I. senator wrote, “That the swap proposal is before the Virgin Islands public at this time reminds us of the precarious position of the Virgin Islands being a ‘possession’ of the United States of America while not being a ‘part’ of the United States of America.”
“The NPS needs to yield back the 11 acres into the hands of the people of the Virgin Islands for the education of our youth and back off on its attempt to take Whistling Cay away from us,” Sprauve wrote.
Some ancestral St. Johnians would like to see the Park Service lease the land to V.I. government.
“Cinnamon Bay Campground and Caneel Bay Resort are leased to corporations,” said Theodora Moorehead. “Why can’t the Park Service just lease the land to the Department of Education for $1 per year?”
The possibility of leasing the 11 acres in Estate Catherineberg for a school was not addressed in the Park Service’s latest report.
The Source asked Nigel Fields, superintendent of the VINP, about the possibility of establishing a lease agreement. Fields replied, “The request from the territory is for a land exchange.”
Fields further clarified the purpose of leases. “NPS leases are generally for existing structures, particularly those no longer in use by the NPS,” Fields said. “NPS leases allow existing facilities to be put back into use while reducing the NPS maintenance backlog.”
Asked if the Education Department had considered a lease, architect Chaneel Callwood, who is heading up the school project, wrote, “The V.I. Dept of Education has not sought a legal opinion regarding the feasibility of a lease. The Department does not have the funds to lease land. As to whether FEMA could fund the school on leased property, only FEMA could speak to that.”
A Source inquiry to FEMA brought the following response, “FEMA looks forward to working with the territory on the Julius E. Sprauve School project. However, FEMA is not able to comment on a hypothetical proposal.”
Longtime educator Yvonne Wells said she understands St. Johnians’ objections to the land exchange. “Yes, the National Park Service has more land than it should have and has limited access to private property, but it’s time for a school,” she said.
Wells served as principal of the (now closed) Guy Benjamin School in Coral Bay and the Sprauve School in Cruz Bay before becoming an St. Thomas/St. John district assistant superintendent. She said beginning in 1992, a group of educators and community leaders, including Gaylord Sprauve and Julian Harley, worked tirelessly to find an appropriate site.
The property in Catherineberg has the advantages of being relatively flat, adjacent to a major road, centrally located, and available for non-conservation purposes because of unique features in the former landowner’s bequest to the park.
Since April, members of the public have submitted comments on the proposed exchange and presented various alternatives, many of which are discussed in the 79-page report published in August.
The report states, “Some stakeholders have suggested other parcels either for use by the Territory or for exchange by the Territory. Consideration of such alternatives are the discretion of the Territory, not the National Park Service.”
In other words, the land exchange was the choice put forth by the V.I. government. The land exchange was formally proposed by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. in November 2019.
The report also warned that further delay in moving forward with the Catherineberg-Whistling Cay exchange could jeopardize funding from the federal government.
“Any change in parcels under consideration would require the valuation process to be re-initiated … any substantial delays to the land exchange being executed would put at risk the Territory’s ability to use available emergency response funding to construct the educational facilities,” the report stated.
Two other alternatives to the land exchange were also dismissed in the report:
“Some stakeholders have suggested that the National Park Service consider exchanging the Catherineberg parcel with Territory-owned submerged waters in South Haulover Bay instead of Whistling Cay. The Territory-owned land in South Haulover Bay is adjacent to NPS-owned land in Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument. However, because these submerged lands do not lie within the current authorized boundary of either the national park or the national monument, the National Park Service has no legal authority to accept this parcel.”
“Additionally, the organization Friends of Virgin Islands National Park has noted the availability of 4 acres they could contribute towards an exchange; however, the details about this parcel (location, topography, property title, etc.) are unclear, and no formal offer has been made to the GVI to initiate such an exchange.”
Essentially, at this point, the Park Service is offering the public an up-or-down vote about the land exchange.
Written comments may also be hand-delivered or mailed to the park headquarters at: Potential Land Exchange, Superintendent, Virgin Islands National Park, 1300 Cruz Bay Creek, St. John, VI 00830.
In addition, the park will have a printed copy of the environmental assessment for review and comment cards at the park headquarters (1300 Cruz Bay Creek, St. John, VI 00830) during the Visitor Center hours of 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.
For additional information on the project, visit https://parkplanning.nps.gov/stjohnlandexhange.