NPS Narrows Plan for Caneel Bay to Two Choices. Public Comment Period Ends Feb. 21.
By Amy H. Roberts | The Source US Virgin Islands | January 27, 2023
The National Park Service has narrowed the field of choices for developing the 150-acre property within the Virgin Islands National Park, which includes the hurricane-shuttered Caneel Bay Resort. The process of refining possibilities has been underway since last year.
VINP Superintendent Nigel Fields led an online meeting Thursday night to acquaint listeners with the two proposals that are now under consideration. The public is invited to provide comments on these two options by Feb. 21. The comment period can be extended by two weeks upon request.
The two options now under consideration are available on the National Park Service’s website in two forms: a 10-page illustrated newsletter summarizing the proposals and a 90-page Environmental Assessment report that provides extensive detail.
Essentially, the Park Service is offering an “all or nothing” choice for how to move forward on the property, which will fall under the management of the National Park Service on Oct. 1, according to an agreement established by Laurence Rockefeller’s Jackson Hole Preserve in 1983.
Under Alternative A – the “nothing” or “no action ” proposal – “the NPS would assume management responsibility of the Caneel Bay area and would not issue any permit, lease, or concession contract to re-establish overnight use or provide resort-style services.” In other words, there would be no plans to open a hotel, campground, restaurant or resort in any form.
“The NPS would minimally restore the site to allow for safe access by visitors through existing roads and trails, including safe access to beaches,” the Environmental Assessment report continued. The public would have access to all beaches and areas except for those deemed hazardous because of hurricane damage.
The Park Service would continue its conservation mission. “The NPS and/or partner groups would continue to monitor natural and cultural resources in the Caneel Bay area, such as sea turtles, shorebirds, coral, historic structures, and archeological sites, to the extent resources are available and required by law,” the report stated.
However, current commercial operations, such as ZoZo’s restaurant and the Caneel Bay Beach Club, which now operate under an agreement with CBIA – the property’s current leaseholder – would be terminated as of Sept. 30. The water production plant might continue to operate, the report said, but there are no additional plans to expand access, services, or moorings for visiting boaters.
Under this plan, hurricane-damaged buildings would be stabilized, but most structures would not be rehabilitated. Structures with historic significance would be considered for remediation “as required by law.”
Essentially, the once-iconic Caneel Bay Resort would become a “rustic” area similar in character to Salt Pond or Francis Bay, Fields said during the meeting.
At some point in the future, some services (like a snack bar) or amenities (like an interpretation center) could be considered, the Environmental Report stated, but there is no provision to move forward on these possibilities under Alternative A.
Alternative B, the “all” or “redevelopment” alternative, is the option now favored by the Park Service. It includes a resort with overnight accommodations, gift shops, water sports rentals, employee housing, as well as extensive interpretive services provided by the park.
It would also call for the regular maintenance of the grounds and designated day-use facilities for visitors, including picnic tables and restrooms at Honeymoon Beach, Little Caneel, and the main Caneel Beach.
However, Scott Bay, Turtle Bay, and Caneel Hawksnest would become part of the resort; although they would remain accessible by the water (according to the Virgin Islands Open Shorelines Act,) access by the public is not currently part of this plan.
The Caneel Bay Resort operated as an exclusive luxury hotel, but the Park Service hasn’t decided yet whether it would continue as such or whether it will include a range of accommodations at various price points. “We’re not determining that now,” said Fields. “We have to consider the reality of rebuilding costs.”
In previous public meetings about the future of the property, members of the public expressed concern about the possibility of expanding the number of guest rooms at the resort, but the report put that notion to rest.
“Under Alternative B, the NPS would work with one or more developer/operators to create an overnight visitor experience that represents the design intent of the resort from the mid-twentieth century,” the report states.
“Laurance Rockefeller also had a desire to not increase the capacity of the resort. All overnight lodging concepts proposed by a developer/operator would not exceed previous lodging capacity of approximately 166 guest rooms.”
Fields said the Park Service is committed to taking an eco-tourism approach that includes the “thoughtful use of materials,” conservation of water and energy sources, and practices that take into account climate change, including rising sea levels. A floodplain map shows that the guest units at Scott Bay and Caneel Hawksnest are most in danger of damage from climate change.
The guiding principle is “no harm” to the environment, cultural resources or community.
Social justice concerns and the socio-economic effects of the development have been considered, Fields continued. Efforts will be made to provide Virgin Islanders with economic opportunities, and the Park Service can compel the resort operator to pay the Federal minimum wage.
Gordy Kito, leasing program manager for the NPS, said under Alternative B, the Park Service might decide to offer concession agreements or leases to future developer/operators. Concessions typically provide “a reasonable opportunity for a profit,” while leases are based on “the fair market value of the property.”
Alternative B also takes into consideration community spaces – a request that was made repeatedly during previous public meetings.
Two areas for community spaces have been identified. One is close to the entrance along the roadway, and the other is near the dock. The NPS would work with a partner to fund and operate these community spaces.
The report said these areas might be “suitable for a heritage center, indoor/outdoor market space, meetings and event space, or performance area that could host festivals, music or art events, community gardens or horticulture, or showcase the islands culinary arts or crafts, as long as the activities are consistent with NPS management policies.”
Alternate B is expected to have a positive effect on the economy of St. John, providing employment at the resort as well as opportunities for small and large businesses.
Although the question was posed during the meeting, park officials did not address whether an array of businesses, services, and amenities could be offered at various sites throughout the property if a resort/developer was not part of the plan.
Moving forward, Fields said the Park Service is moving ahead with its plans despite a Quiet Title Claim filed in Federal Court by CBIA, the private equity firm that holds the lease on the property until October.
Upon questioning, Fields said that CBIA was welcome to submit a proposal when the Park Service issues a request for proposals sometime this summer.
Meanwhile, efforts are continuing to clean up the contamination found at Caneel Bay. Asked whether CBIA would be required to fund the clean-up, Fields said, “We’re looking at all the options, including reimbursement by the operator. We will have more to say to the public soon.”
Although the Park Service has not provided a date for completing the environmental assessment process, officials said this round of public comments will be analyzed starting in late February or early March, and a decision on “no action” or “redevelopment” will be made by the spring.
If Alternative B is selected, a request for proposals will be issued in the summer of 2023, design proposals will be considered throughout the winter of 2024, and a developer/operator will be selected by summer of 2024. The Park Service now estimates that construction will take two years, so a new resort could open in 2026.
The public can comment on the two proposals by clicking this link and choosing the “Comment now” button.
Four more public meetings are planned. On Thursday, Feb. 2, a meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. at the Gifft Hill School Atrium.
On Friday, Feb. 3, a meeting will be held on St. Thomas at 5:30 p.m. at a location to be determined.
On Saturday, Feb. 4, a meeting will be held at 2 p.m. at the Guy Benjamin School.
In mid-February, a meeting will be held during a Rotary Club lunch that is open to the public.
Friends note — More information on the history of Caneel can be found on our website here.