On Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, nine Democrat senators of the 35th Legislature voted to accept a land exchange between the National Park Service (NPS) and the Government of the V.I.(GVI). Wisdom prevailed!
In my opinion, it’s mind-boggling that anyone would be opposed to exchanging Whistling Cay, which is owned by the GVI, for a parcel of land managed by the NPS. This parcel of land, known as Estate Catherineberg, is an 11.3-acre property located on St. John. Whistling Cay is a 17.97-acre uninhabitable islet off Mary Point on the north shore of St. John. With the acquisition of Estate Catherineberg, the GVI can now move forward with its plan to build an educational complex that could also serve as an emergency shelter for residents of St. John.
Although the swap was the most prudent approach to acquiring land from the NPS, getting the land exchange ratified by the Legislature was not an easy ride. The vote to approve the land exchange was postponed on July 20, so that senators could get time to obtain more “facts” related to the swap. Unfortunately, a vociferous minority group attempted to sabotage the ratification process by misleading the senators and the public. They were able to bamboozle the five senators who voted against the land exchange.
The most vocal opponents of this group continue to verbally attack Governor Bryan Jr. They also persist in denigrating many other elected officials. There is a relentless effort to discredit the senators who supported the swap. The group appears to be anti-government, anti-Democrats and anti-democracy.
I feel compelled to address some of the misinformation that the vociferous minority has been promoting on the airwaves. However, it’s hoped that the concerns of those opposed to the land swap will be addressed at an appropriate time. Conflating issues won’t resolve the grievances against the NPS.
Based on the supreme law of the land, the U.S. Constitution, private citizens can freely express their thoughts on any matter without fear of reprisal from their governments. It’s disingenuous though for those that disagree with the swap to promote utter disrespect towards our elected officials. It’s also disheartening that some vociferous voices are inciting violence and using profane language on the airwaves.
One false claim by the group is that the land exchange is an illegal act. That’s nonsense! The Legislature makes laws and can amend local laws if conflict arises when a new legislation is being considered. Note that the Revised Organic Act of 1954, the de facto constitution for the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), doesn’t prohibit senators from ratifying an exchange of land between the NPS and GVI.
Another claim is that the Treaty of Cession doesn’t allow the GVI-owned land to be conveyed in any manner. Please read the treaty. It protected the property rights of Danish citizens inhabiting the islands during the transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States. Two former colonial powers, Denmark and the United States, agreed to the sale of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. These three islands made up the Danish West Indies which became the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) once the sale deal was sealed. No provision in the treaty is applicable to the land exchange between the GVI and NPS.
According to the radical group, the exchange of land is a “land grab.” This is another nonsensical claim. The Catherineberg property was donated to the park by a resident of St. John with a stipulation in the deed that the land could be used for a public purpose if approved by the Secretary of the Interior. It’s an ideal site to build a school and multipurpose center. NPS has already agreed to compensate for the difference in the value of two properties by paying $210, 000 to the GVI. Moreover, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has committed to fund 90% of the cost to construct a new school on St. John.
A vociferous minority had hoped that all the senators would be convinced that keeping an uninhabited islet was more important than a land exchange to build a new school. Only five senators were once again willing to delay the plan to construct a new PreK-12 Julius E. Sprauve School. They assumed that both the NPS and GVI would be amenable to an alternative proposal by a resident of St. John — the trade of a 13.2-acre parcel of land in Estate Caroline instead of Whistling Cay.
The alternative proposal sounded like a pipe dream! So what made the five senators believe that the NPS would be interested in the property at Estate Caroline? Whistling Cay is a wildlife sanctuary and has historic value. It also has recreational value since tourists and V.I. residents alike can use the beach at the Cay to snorkel, swim, scuba dive, etc. What is the value of the property at Estate Caroline and would the public have easy access to it? Isn’t the purchase of such property an example of “land grabbing” or gentrification?
A public high school has never been built on St. John, high schoolers on the island have to attend private high schools there or transverse by ferry to public high schools on St. Thomas. Some opponents to the land swap say that the NPS should simply donate Estate Catherineberg, but selling or donating park land without congressional approval is prohibited. Repeating the message that the NPS should donate the land has been futile. The idea of a school being built at Estate Catherinberg is not new. It has been pursued for decades, but the optimism now is greater than ever. To place further obstacles in finalizing the plan would be tragic.
Students are presently advocating for the right to safe and healthy school environments. They want to learn without any disruption or distraction to the educational process. Let’s support the GVI and ensure an educational complex on St. John is expeditiously completed.
Our children deserve a quality education, and a multi-purpose facility would be a benefit to the territory. Congratulations to everyone who played a role in the historic decision of Sept. 15, 2023!
Sincerely, Verdel L. Petersen