VINP Supt. Fields Updates Status of Caneel Redevelopment Plan

By Amy H. Roberts / The Source / June 20, 2022
The National Park Service has published a report summarizing the comments submitted by the public in response to the Caneel Bay Redevelopment Proposals presented in meetings earlier this year.

However, readers of this report, the Civic Engagement Comment Summary,
may be disappointed to learn that it does not indicate anything specific about the Park Service’s plans for the iconic Caneel Bay Resort.

Rather, the report presents the range of opinions gleaned from a total of 1,200 submitted comments. These comments came from an online listening session held in April 2021 and in response to a set of four “first round” options presented in the early months of 2022.

Three of the four options included rebuilding the hotel, which first opened in 1956. The fourth option does not include the development of a hotel.

The 150-acre Caneel Bay Resort property lies within the boundaries of the Virgin Islands National Park. It was leased to CBI Acquisitions under a unique arrangement called a Retained Use Estate, but the hotel was badly damaged by Hurricane Irma in 2017 and has not reopened. When the lease expires in 2023, the property will come under the full control of the Park Service for the first time.

The fundamental question now is, “Do we open up accommodations, or not? If so, what size, scale, and scope?” said VINP Superintendent Nigel Fields.

Fields said the NPS has no pre-determined plan for the property. “Our responsibility is to protect and preserve the natural and cultural resources. Our goal is to have a plan in place by 2023. We’re taking our time to build community engagement.”

The Park Service will continue to refine a set of options for the property and will hold another round of meetings to gather additional comments from the public, but Fields could not say when that next round would begin. “I’ll be able to say more about that soon,” he said.

Fields said the NPS was “blown away” by the public participation so far.

Although the Civic Engagement Summary Report does not reveal whether the public favors any particular plan for development, Fields did outline five trends among the comments:

First is a need for greater public access to Caneel Bay’s natural and cultural treasures.

Second, opportunities for local hiring at all levels and greater corporate stewardship from any commercial entity.

Third is protection of natural and cultural resources.

Fourth is a focus on environmental sustainability and resilience.

Fifth, a desire to interpret the deep history of the site, including the 1733 Slave Revolt.

The hundreds of comments summarized in the report show a wide range of responses to the four options presented earlier this year.

Several made reference to the vision expressed by Laurance Rockefeller, who donated the land to establish the resort and much of the Virgin Islands National Park. In 1983, Rockefeller set up the Retained Use Estate to lease the resort property for 40 years.

In the agreement, Rockefeller and his agents wrote that it was their “expectation and intention” that “the Retained Use Estate will be terminated and extinguished in order to carry out the longstanding objective … that the Premises ultimately be an integral part of the Virgin Islands National Park … for the use and enjoyment by visitors to the park of the outstanding scenic and other features of national significance.”

The public’s comments presented in the Civic Engagement Comment Summary show just how differently these words could be interpreted. For example, under section AL2200 (Alternative Concept: Context-Sensitive Redevelopment), the report states, “Commenters supported preserving the character and design that Caneel Bay Resort had established in the past, while other commenters stated the property should be returned to the NPS for enjoyment by the larger public without a resort present.”

For those who want to see a resort built, some “prefer luxury resort accommodations and feel that increasing public access or creating mid-range accommodations within the site would negatively impact the visitor experience in terms of privacy and exclusivity.”

Other commenters “supported a range of accommodations at the Caneel Bay area to allow for more visitors to enjoy the site outside of luxury resort visitors,” according to the report.

Fields said he was “very pleased with the staff’s fidelity to transparency” in preparing this report. “We’ll use these comments to further reshape and refine our plans at a ‘programmatic’ level; that is, the NPS aims to establish an overall direction and guidance on the future use of Caneel Bay to include resource preservation and protection, visitor experiences and the potential for commercial services.”

Fields said there was some confusion regarding the idea of building a moderately priced hotel on the Caneel property in addition to a luxury resort, as presented in Option A. Some commenters mistakenly thought the proposed moderately priced hotel would be placed at Hawksnest Beach, a popular undeveloped beach along the North Shore Road.

Instead, the moderately priced resort presented in Option A would be located at Caneel Hawksnest, just to the north of Hawksnest Beach. The beach at Caneel Hawksnest has been part of the resort property since 1956 and has only been accessible by the public from the water.

When viewed from the water now, several buildings containing overnight units remain relatively intact at Caneel Hawksnest in comparison to the severely damaged beachfront units at the main beach at Caneel and at Scott Bay.

Fields said members of the public liked the idea of opening up access to Caneel Hawksnest, but many were not in favor of cutting a new road to do that.

Those commenters alarmed at the idea of cutting a new road may not be aware that there exists an overgrown gated service road from the North Shore Road to Caneel Hawksnest that has not been open for many years. That road could be reopened as part of a plan to provide public access to Caneel Hawksnest under Option A.

Other commenters suggested a wide range of other possibilities, including ADA-compliant paths, increased boat access and moorings, public amenities at every beach, housing for park employees, a vocational training facility, an open-air market, a retirement or health facility, a botanical garden, a museum, campground, festival site, community center, hurricane shelter, playground, parking facility, and community gardens.

Upon questioning, Fields clarified one other point of confusion: Several NPS documents for redevelopment at Caneel Bay refer to the Virgin Islands National Park as “VIIS” instead of the more common abbreviation VINP. Fields explained that each national park, historic site, and national monument is assigned a four-letter code by the National Park Service.

Typically, the abbreviation is based on the first two letters in the first two words. Thus, the Virgin Islands National Park is abbreviated as VIIS. However, the abbreviation for the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument is VICR.

A complete listing of documents relating to the redevelopment of the Caneel Bay property may be found at this link.