Senate President Novelle Francis Jr. wants to hear from the public ahead of a Committee of the Whole meeting on July 11 to consider the proposed land swap for a new school on St. John.
Representatives from the governor’s office, the V.I. National Park, and St. John community groups have been invited to attend the meeting that will be held starting at 3 p.m. in the Cleone H. Creque Legislative Conference Room in Cruz Bay, according to Francis, who issued the call for comments in a press release on Wednesday.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. sent legislation for the land swap between the V.I. government and the National Park Service to the 35th Legislature on June 11. If approved, it will allow a new Pre-k-12 public school to be built on St. John that will put an end to the hardships of students who must take a ferry to St. Thomas to attend high school, as has been the case since 1934, when Guy Benjamin became the first St Johnian to graduate from a Virgin Islands high school.
Under the proposal, the V.I. government would give the National Park Service title to Whistling Cay, a 17.97-acre island off Mary Point on the north shore of St. John. The cay, which lies within the boundaries of the Virgin Islands National Park, is undeveloped except for the historic ruins of an old guardhouse. The property has been appraised at $1,440,000.
In exchange, the National Park Service would give the territory 11.3 acres of property donated to the VINP in 1968 by the Bishop family, more than 20 years after the park was established.
The Estate Catherineberg site, located three miles from Cruz Bay on Centerline Road near John Head Road, contains historic ruins. It has been appraised at $1,230,000. The federal government will reimburse the territory $210,000 for the difference in value. The money will be appropriated to the St. John Capital Improvements Fund, according to officials with the Bryan administration.
Under the proposed legislation, the V.I. government and its people will retain the water rights to Whistling Cay, according to Bryan, who has penned an op-ed encouraging Virgin Islanders to support the land swap. The proposal has been met with some opposition by those who think the park service should donate the land, and by others who think the site is inappropriate for a school.
However, a FAQ sheet on the NPS land exchange website explains, “The National Park Service has no legal authority to donate land. Federal law prohibits conveyance of property from National Parks. The same law authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to exchange lands within a National Park. In general, only Congress can change the boundary of a National Park.”
The Virgin Islands National Park was established in 1956 and encompasses about 60 percent of the island of St. John. Land for the park was gifted to the federal government by Laurance S. Rockefeller for the purpose of establishing a national park.
There’s another obstacle to simply giving the land away. “Everything Rockefeller donated has a reversion clause — if the land is used for anything other than conservation, it goes back to Jackson Hole Preserve,” island expert Eleanor Gibney said at a town hall meeting concerning the land swap in April 2022.
The proposed Bishop property, also known as Hammer Farm, does not include a similar provision and is available for exchange.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will fund the construction of the new school after the Julius E. Sprauve School — the only remaining public school on St. John — was heavily damaged in the twin Category 5 hurricanes of September 2017. It serves children from kindergarten through grade eight, with students attending classes in modular units placed on the ball field in Cruz Bay since the storms.
Under the current proposal, if a new school is built in Catherineberg, the ball field will go back into operation as a recreational facility under the administration of the Department of Sports, Parks, and Recreation.
“I have had conversations with many St. John students and their parents. I have heard the stories of their daily commute, some leaving home in the darkness as early as 5:30 a.m. to make the ferry, sometimes in stormy weather, to get to school in St. Thomas on time,” Bryan said in his op-ed. “Many students have to pass up participating in extracurricular activities because of the rigors of that commute.”
“There is a lot of community interest in the proposed exchange,” Francis said Wednesday. “I hope that people take advantage of this opportunity to submit their comments as part of the public record. While the invited testifiers represent a range of viewpoints, comments from the community ensure that the full diversity of opinions on this topic are available for public review.”
Comments should be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday, July 7.
The hearing will begin at 3 p.m. on July 11 and can be viewed on Legit TV (VIYA Channel 26), the Legislature’s Facebook page, or via live stream at legvi.org. The hearing will also be broadcast on 91.9 FM.