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FROM DRAKE'S SEAT TO BEACH NOW PROTECTED LAND

July 2, 2002 – St. Thomas conservationists, environmentalists, beach lovers and visitors could breathe a sigh of relief with Tuesday's announcement by The Nature Conservancy that it, along with the Virgin Islands government, has purchased 228 acres of land around and above Magens Bay for use as a nature preserve and wildlife refuge.
It was a deal 20 years in the making which ultimately involved the purchase of the property known as the Wheaton Estate for a price below market value.
When combined with the existing public property at Magens Bay, the preserve will total 318 acres stretching from the beach all the way up to the road below Louisenhoj Castle. It will include the Drake's Seat overlook and the western end of Magens Bay Beach, which had been privately owned.
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull said his staff had been working for three years to acquire the land on the hills above the mile-long strip of white sand and palm trees that is the most popular beach on St. Thomas for both residents and visitors to the territory.
The V.I. government and its Magens Bay Authority will own about 120 acres of the land, and The Nature Conservancy, a national environmental organization, will own the remainder. The Nature Conservancy and the government have an agreement to hold the newly purchased land as a nature preserve, with development to be limited to a few hiking trails and archeological sites, Turnbull said Tuesday.
"Magens Bay will now remain forever undeveloped," he said at a ceremony in one of the picnic sheds at the beach. "The people of the Virgin Islands now own all of the land from one end of the beach to the other, and from the road above to the water's edge."
He also said, "I am going to strongly insist to the commissioner of Education that every school child in the Virgin Islands be given an opportunity to take the tour once the trails are completed."
More than 500,000 people visit Magens Bay each year, according to Robert Weary, director of The Nature Conservancy's programs in the Virgin Islands. The environmental group saw a need to protect the hillside above the beach from development, as the forest prevents erosion that could lower water quality in the bay, he said.
"These upland forests protect the beach itself," Weary said. "Magens Bay, beyond being one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, is also home to sea turtles, coral and all sorts of marine life."
The government will now control the Drake's Seat overlook. The deeds to the land prohibit any commercial activity in the area, according to Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dean Plaskett. Vendors who had been operating at the site protested vehemently when they were ordered to leave two years ago, but government agencies and court rulings repeatedly held that they did not have a right to sell their wares at the overlook.
The nature preserve's archeological sites include Arawak camps and slave quarters from a former plantation, Turnbull said.
The Nature Conservancy paid about $5.75 million for the land, then sold the government its share for about $2.5 million, Weary said. The Nature Conservancy also sold about 40 acres on the edge of the preserve to a developer for $2.1 million to help finance the overall project, Weary added.
He said the land sold to the developer will be for single-family homes on large lots, which will keep environmental impacts to a minimum. "It's sort of like cutting off your toe to save your whole foot," he said of the decision to sell a small part of the land for development in order to help finance the larger purchase.
The Nature Conservancy hopes to recover most of the rest of the money through local fund-raising efforts, Weary added.
The government's share of the cost came from the Land Bank Fund, which has existed for about 15 years to allow the government to make real estate purchases, according to Paul Gimenez, the governor's chief legal counsel. The fund regularly has been plundered to pay for other government expenses in the past, he noted, adding that the Magens Bay purchase has completely depleted the fund for now.
Weary said the cost of the land was below market value because the seller, Christine Wheaton, wanted to preserve the property in memory of her late husband, Homer Wheaton.
The couple had inherited the property from Homer Wheaton's uncle, Arthur Fairchild, who in the 1940s deeded the property at Magens Bay Beach to the people of the Virgin Islands. Fairchild, an avid arboriculturist, had imported and planted trees from around the world on the land behind the beach known as the Aubrey Nelthropp Arboretum.
The beach is managed by the Magens Bay Authority. Edmund Penn, authority chair, said he had been worried for years that the land above and adjacent to the beach could be sold to developers of a major resort. In fact, he said, he had met with Christine Wheaton "right there at the concession" to talk about how to protect the bay.
"It was a real possibility to see this property developed," he said, adding how pleased he is that the land will now be preserved in its pristine state. "We've wanted to see this happen for years," he said.

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