We Need a New Public Process For Caneel Bay Redevelopment

This opinion authored byTodd Sampsell, President, Friends of Virgin Islands National Park appeared as a Letter to the Editor in The Virgin Islands Daily News on Wednesday, July 8, 2020.

Three years after hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated St. John and with three years left of the 40-year Retained Use Estate (RUE) granted by Laurance Rockefeller over the Caneel Bay Resort property, current RUE holder CBI Acquisitions, LLC (CBIA) has done nothing to return the property to a productive part of the Virgin Islands economy. Instead, CBIA continues to lobby in Washington D.C. for an extension of the RUE, an agreement that would provide more favorable business conditions for CBIA. It would provide less oversight of the property’s significant natural and cultural resources by the National Park Service on behalf of our community and the American people. It would provide less economic benefit to the St. John and St. Thomas communities through reduced occupancy and hotel tax revenue. In addition to 60 more years of a sweetheart deal, CBIA has sought to avoid responsibility for significant environmental contamination of the property, a situation that may have profound impacts on the marine environment of the US Virgin Islands, including Coral Reef National Monument and the health of St. John residents and visitors. 

Friends of Virgin Islands National Park (Friends) are hereby calling on the National Park Service and Department of Interior, members of Congress and the Bryan Administration to begin working in earnest on a path forward for the Caneel Bay Resort property. As stated in our original position on Caneel, see https://www.friendsvinp.org/our-work/blog/19-friends-position-statement-on-caneel-bay-resort, the Friends, on behalf of our 8,000 members, does not support extending the RUE. This sentiment was echoed by the St. John community at public meetings in 2018. We feel that legislation passed in 2010, allowing for a noncompetitive lease between DOI NPS and the RUE holder for up to 40 years provided a satisfactory business opportunity for the current or future lease holders while ensuring better NPS oversight and protection of the property’s resources for all Americans. Unfortunately, it seems that wasn’t enough for CBIA.

Since CBIA would not negotiate in good faith on an unheard of, noncompetitive 40-year lease and since the National Park Service’s 2013 NEPA process is likely no longer relevant given the environmental contamination found in 2014 and the impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, we are requesting the National Park Service restart a NEPA process that provides fuller public input opportunities into the best options for Caneel’s redevelopment. NEPA is the National Environmental Policy Act, established in 1970 to ensure federal agencies evaluate environmental, social and economic impacts of their decisions before taking actions. The NEPA process requires public input from the community as options for action are considered and developed. We do not believe another 40 years of CBIA control over Caneel is in the best interest of the property’s resources or the community of St. John.

Further, we call on our elected and appointed officials from the local to national levels of government to recognize the St. John and St. Thomas communities as a voice in the planning and negotiating for the future lease and/or concession agreements for the Caneel Bay property. NO MORE SECRET WASHINGTON DC NEGOTIATIONS! As Laurance Rockefeller intended with the extinguishment of the RUE in 2023, we ask that any negotiated lease or concession agreements provide the St. John community and visitors greater access to the property as part of our Virgin Islands National Park, land and waters owned by all Americans.

The National Park Service, DOI and with the assistance of the Environmental Protection Agency should immediately resume characterizing the extent of the environmental contamination of the Caneel Bay property. A restoration and remediation plan should be developed that would allow the property to be brought back as a safe, clean and productive part of the St. John economy and an amenity for our Virgin Islands National Park. Costs for environmental cleanup should be borne by responsible parties.

The people of St. John have persisted in the years following the devastation of the hurricanes of 2017. Residents and visitors deserve amenities on the Caneel Bay property that contribute to the local economy, protect the valuable resources found there, and once again showcase an authentic Caribbean experience that can be found nowhere else. The legal mechanisms are already in place to enable this to happen. NO RUE EXTENSION IS NEEDED.

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