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Cruz Bay
Tuesday, September 27, 2022


Despite eight-plus hours of testimony that lasted past 1 a.m. Saturday and apparent changes of heart by some senators, the Beal Aerospace-V.I. government land exchange remains in limbo.
At a Committee of the Whole session in Frederiksted that began Friday at 5 p.m., Senators heard representatives from Gov. Charles Turnbull’s administration and Beal lawyers outline the particulars of the land swap proposal.
The legislators also heard almost unanimous support for the project from a standing-room only crowd—but not for the company’s proposed site at Great Pond Bay.
Texas-based Beal is proposing the exchange of 14.5 acres at a site owned by the government and formerly occupied by Camp Arawak for approximately 15 acres of land Beal owns in Estates Whim and Grange Hill. Beal needs the Camp Arawak land for a portion of a parking lot that will accompany its proposed $57-million world headquarters and rocket assembly plant near Great Pond Bay on St. Croix’s rural southeast shore.
There were three new main developments at the meeting: Attorney General Iver Stridiron’s assessment of how senators would have to deal with the land exchange; statements by Beal representatives that if the project doesn’t move forward at the Great Pond Site it will die; and V.I. Port Authority Executive Director Gordon Finch’s explanation of Beal and the Port Authority’s negotiations over land at Estate Betty’s Hope that could house the project.
Because the 14.5 acres was given to the government by the late Frank Wiesner in 1974 for the express purpose of being used as a public recreational area forever, Stridiron said the Legislature could waive the law in order to override the public trust doctrine.
"You can waive the equitable rights of the people to challenge the agreement," Stridiron told senators. "The question is if the serious economic problem in the Virgin Islands, and St. Croix in particular, rises to the level that a court in equity will waive these rights."
While Beal lawyers said they were confident the Wiesner deed could be worked around, the Senate’s legal counsel’s opinion was that the land swap agreement was illegal.
"If the body passes (the land exchange) you expect to be in court," Sen. Gregory Bennerson asked Stridiron.
"That’s a given," replied the attorney general.
When Sen. Lorraine Berry asked Beal’s legal counsel Marjorie Rawls Roberts if the company would leave if it couldn’t build at Great Pond, Roberts said yes.
"It’s not an effort to hold hostage," Roberts said. "This is the only (site) with all the factors necessary."
That position, however, didn’t sit well with some people, both senators and the public. Sen. Almando Liburd said he supports Beal locating on St. Croix, but something needs to be done to get all the involved parties on the same page.
"I don’t like this situation that the ultimatum is one place," he said.
The Port Authority’s Finch, meanwhile, said that its 100 acres at the Betty’s Hope site was considered by Beal. At one point during the past year and a half, he said VIPA and Beal representative Brad Oates had been close regarding lease negotiations. But because VIPA would only offer a long-term lease for the land, he said Beal declined to negotiate.
The main reason for that, said Roberts, is that leased land wouldn’t be suitable for the company’s headquarters. She did say it may work for the manufacturing portion.
Finch also said that because the Betty’s Hope land is considered airport property, VIPA wouldn’t consider divesting it. He did say, however, that he would advise the nine-member VIPA board that it could sell 10 acres for Beal’s headquarters and lease another larger portion of land for the manufacturing aspect at fair market value.
Finch said VIPA can sell, but has made the determination that it won’t sell the airport land because of its value to the V.I. public.
"We will, however, Mr. Oates and Mr. Beal, give you a 99 year lease," Finch said on the record.
He added that if the company can’t capitalize on its investment in 99 years, then it probably "ought not be in the business."
He added, though, that an exception could be made in order to keep Beal on St. Croix.
"If what it takes is the reconsideration to sell Port Authority land . . . I’ll take that to my board."
Finch said that until Friday’s hearing, it was his understanding that the Port Authority was still in contention as a site location for Beal, even though the company has said the Betty’s Hope site doesn't afford a protected anchorage and other amenities.
"I think it’s altogether possible these things could be worked out," he said. "Otherwise, everything else, in my opinion, is a smokescreen — big time."
After public testimony was given, primarily against Beal at the Great Pond site, Sen. Adelbert Bryan made a motion to have the Senate take up the land exchange agreement next week in full session. The motion failed, keeping the issue undecided and VIPA as the last resort for Beal on St. Croix.
All senators were present expect Sens. Judy Gomez, George Goodwin and Alicia Hansen, who was sick.

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