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National Park Service Seeks Public Comment on Concepts for Caneel Bay

Damage remaining at Turtle Bay at Caneel Bay Resort in May 2019. The National Park Service is seeking public comment on an initial set of concepts for the redevelopment of the property that has remained mostly closed since the hurricanes of September 2017. (Source file photo)

The National Park Service is seeking public comment on an initial set of concepts for the redevelopment of Caneel Bay, the iconic resort at Virgin Islands National Park on St. John’s renowned north shore that has been closed since the hurricanes of 2017.

The concepts, released Tuesday, range from re-establishing a world-class resort on the 150-acre property along with a mid-range overnight experience, to minimally restoring the site for public hiking and beach access.

“We developed a preliminary range of options that prioritize the protection of resources and expand public access to Caneel Bay,” said Virgin Islands National Park Superintendent Nigel Fields in a press release Tuesday. “Civic engagement is an important part of the redevelopment process. We look forward to receiving the public’s feedback as we work together to create the best possible future for Caneel Bay.”

The property currently operates under a retained use estate, called a RUE, a unique arrangement crafted by Laurance S. Rockefeller in 1983, setting aside the resort for independent operation and management within Virgin Islands National Park without NPS oversight.

CBI Acquisitions LLC controls the lease through September 2023 and sought to extend it before it would invest in repairs after hurricanes Irma and Maria caused massive damage in September 2017. However, the Department of the Interior rejected that proposal and in July announced it would move forward with an open bidding process when the lease is up.

Members of the St. John community rejoiced at the news. Many of them have long been critical of CBIA’s management of the property, which in September 2020 was found to have environmental contamination, though the extent was unknown because CBIA allegedly rebuffed attempts by the National Park Service to complete mandated environmental assessments, according to reports at the time. The issue led to a citizen’s lawsuit.

In addition to long being an economic driver on the island, Caneel Bay is also an important cultural and historical site and the location of the 1733 Akwamu Slave Rebellion, one of the first sustained revolts of enslaved people in the Americas, the NPS stated in its press release. Many members of the St. John community have expressed concern that such history is preserved.

While the RUE will remain in place until its expiration on Sept. 30, 2023, the NPS began planning for the Caneel Bay redevelopment last fall. The goals of the redevelopment plan are to ensure the preservation and protection of natural, cultural and marine resources, provide for economic development opportunities through commercial services, maximize operational efficiencies, and ensure compliance with law, regulation and policy, according to Tuesday’s press release.

In line with these objectives, four preliminary redevelopment options are proposed for the public to comment on, including:

Alternative A The NPS preliminary proposed action balances enhanced public access, recreational opportunities, resource protection and park operational efficiency, while re-establishing a world-class overnight experience at a luxury resort. Additionally, the concept calls for a mid-range overnight experience at Hawksnest Beach separate from the resort, and the NPS would provide space for an organization to design, fund, construct, and operate a community destination, such as an amphitheater, museum or cultural center.

Alternative B offers a similar management approach to Alternative A, except the resort area is expanded and a mid-range overnight experience and public access at Hawksnest Beach is removed.

Alternative C includes all resort zone elements identified in Alternative A, and the resort zone is similar to that of the historic boundaries of the Caneel Bay RUE. No visitor services would be provided at the site for non-resort guests, and the NPS would not provide a community space at the Caneel Bay area.

No-Action Alternative assumes sole management by the NPS upon expiration of the RUE in 2023. The NPS would not issue any permit, lease or concession contract. The NPS would minimally restore the site to allow for safe access by visitors through existing roads and trails, including safe access to beaches.

Additional information about the proposed redevelopment options can be found at the NPS Caneel Bay redevelopment website and will be discussed at the public engagement meetings.

NPS will hold a virtual public meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 8 at 6 p.m. Members of the public can attend the virtual event or submit written comments by visiting the redevelopment website.

Written comments may also be hand-delivered or mailed to the park headquarters at: Caneel Bay Redevelopment and Management Plan, c/o Superintendent Nigel Fields, 1300 Cruz Bay Creek, St. John, VI 00830.

Public comment will be accepted for 30 days from Jan. 18.

Current information about the NPS redevelopment of the property is available at its Caneel Bay website.

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