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Mineral-Rights Issue Clouds Land Deal

Feb. 5, 2008 — At a meeting in Frederiksted Tuesday, the Committee on Finance approved a bill appropriating funds to purchase 12 acres of land around Creque Dam from John Tranberg, letting Tranberg keep 50 percent of the mineral rights to the land.
The bill authorized the government to spend up to $3 million from the Land Bank Fund to purchase the parcel of land and use it as a park or for some other conservation purpose. The land, Plot No. 14AB North Hall, was a quarry from 1929 to 1940. In the 1950s, zoning laws went into effect and the land was zoned agricultural, prohibiting a rock quarry.
The value of rock that could be readily quarried for gravel is approximately $96 million, according to the Legislature's post-audit report. Unless the government quarries the land, any mineral rights retained by Tranberg would cost the government nothing and put no cash in Tranberg's hands.
Several senators and testifiers objected to buying land with conditions on the title rather than buying it fee simple.
The Department of Planning and Natural Resources favors the purchase and using the land as a park, but opposes a provision in the sale regarding mineral rights, said Marjorie Hendrickson Emanuel of DPNR.
"DPNR favors a fee-simple purchase and opposes having the seller retain 50 percent or less of the mineral rights," she said.
Setting a precedent for retention of some ownership rights also concerns the Finance Department, said Finance Commissioner Claudette Watson-Anderson. She also said the Land Bank Fund does not currently have enough money to cover the appropriation. The Land Bank Fund contains a portion of the two-percent tax imposed on all real estate sales, and the revenues from most sales of government real estate. It serves to finance government purchase of land for public purposes. As of Jan. 31 the fund had $2.8 million, Watson-Anderson said, but the number has not been audited and is subject to change.
When the matter came to a vote, favorable votes came from Sens. Juan Figueroa-Serville, Neville James, Ronald Russell and Terrence "Positive" Nelson, while no votes came from Sens. Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Liston Davis and James Weber III. It will now be scheduled for debate in the Committee on Rules and, if successful there, to the full Senate for final debate, amendments and an up or down vote for passage.
The Finance Committee also passed a bill to require that many semi-autonomous government agencies have their investment portfolios managed by the Public Finance Authority, including the Port Authority, the Economic Development Authority, the Water and Power Authority and the West Indian Company. Testimony was heard in a previous hearing and there was no discussion. Davis, Dowe, Weber and Nelson voted yes. Figueroa-Serville and Russell voted no. James abstained.
A bill appropriating $3.2 million from the Transportation Trust Fund for a series of road repair projects on St. Croix was held in committee. Roberto Cintron, assistant commissioner of Public Works, testified about the projects in question and about road work on St. Croix generally.
Te Transportation Trust Fund is already over-appropriated, Watson-Anderson said.
"The proposed $3.2 million cannot be sustained at this time in fiscal year 2008," she said.
The committee voted unanimously to hold the bill in committee until a funding source is found.
All members of the committee were present when votes were cast. Senate President Usie Richards, a non-committee member also attended, though he did not vote.
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