The public has until April 27 to weigh in on a proposed land swap between the Virgin Islands National Park and the Government of the Virgin Islands, which will allow the territory to build a new pre-K–12 school in Estate Catherineberg on St. John.
Officials from the territory and the National Park Service presented their plan for the swap during an online meeting Thursday evening.
The proposal – decades in the making – would provide for an exchange of properties of roughly equal value.
Under the proposal, the Government of the Virgin Islands would give the National Park Service title to Whistling Cay, a 17.97-acre island off Mary Point on the north shore of St. John. The cay, which lies within the boundaries of the Virgin Islands National Park, is undeveloped except for the historic ruins of an old guardhouse. The property has been appraised at $1,440,000.
In exchange, The National Park Service would give the territory 11.3 acres of property donated to the VINP in 1968 by the Bishop family, more than 20 years after the park was established.
The Catherineberg site, located three miles from Cruz Bay on Centerline Road near John Head Road, contains historic ruins. It has been appraised at $1,230,000. The federal government will reimburse the territory $210,000 for the difference in value.
During the meeting, Nigel Fields, superintendent of the VINP, said the best way for the public to submit comments is by going online to https://parkplanning.nps.gov/StJohnLandExchange. The link brings readers to a newsletter page containing background information, questions to consider, and a button to submit comments.
Written comments can also be addressed to VINP Superintendent and mailed to NPS Land Exchange, 1300 Cruz Bay Creek, St. John, VI 00830.
The call for a new school has been in the works for 30 years. The Julius E. Sprauve School, the only remaining public school on St. John, serves children from kindergarten through grade 8. The school was heavily damaged by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Students have been attending classes in modular units placed on the ball field in Cruz Bay since the storms.
Under the present proposal, when a new school is built in Catherineberg, the ball field will go back into operation as a recreational facility under the administration of the Department of Sports, Parks, and Recreation.
The island’s high school students – except those attending the Gifft Hill School, a small private school on St. John – must take a ferry to St. Thomas to attend school as they have since 1934 when Guy Benjamin became the first St Johnian to graduate from a Virgin Islands high school. St. Johnians have long clamored for a public high school on St. John.
St. John families, particularly those on the eastern portions of the island, have complained for years about the long commute. Dionne Wells-Hedrington, who grew up on St. John and now heads up operations for new school construction for the territory, said she remembers the rigors of commuting.
“This is near and dear to my heart,” she said during the meeting Thursday. The New Schools Construction Advisory Board, which includes teachers, students, administrators, parents, and experts in construction and design, has met more than 20 times over the past 18 months to develop plans for the territory, she said.
The construction of the school for St. John is fully funded under FEMA’s Public Assistance Program. “I’m optimistic that the vision we have for this project will become a reality,” Wells-Hedrington said.
During the meeting, Ivy Moses, a St. John native, said she fully supported the construction of a K-12 school on St. John but was “disheartened” that the land in Catherineberg couldn’t simply be given to the territory to construct a school.
Moses said when Laurance Rockefeller started buying up land to establish the Virgin Islands National Park, her great-grandfather, Neptune Richards, donated some of his property to the park.
“I’m not in support of a land exchange. Enough land was given to the park. This land should be given to the government of the Virgin Islands,” Moses said.
Salman Eurabaie, a supervisory realty specialist with the National Park Service, responded, “It’s really hard to take land out of the park. It’s like locked in a vault forever.”
A FAQ sheet on the park’s land exchange website explains, “The National Park Service has no legal authority to donate land. Federal law prohibits conveyance of property from National Parks. The same law authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to exchange lands within National Park. In general, only Congress can change the boundary of a National Park.”
Although it wasn’t discussed at the meeting, there’s another obstacle to simply giving the land away. “Everything Rockefeller donated has a reversion clause – if the land is used for anything other than conservation, it goes back to Jackson Hole Preserve,” said island expert Eleanor Gibney.
The proposed Bishop property, also known as Hammer Farm, does not include a similar provision and is available for exchange.
During the meeting, several callers suggested exploring a partnership with the Gifft Hill School, which has enough land to absorb a campus like the one planned for Catherineberg.
In response, Jessica Samuel, a graduate of the Gifft Hill School, said she feels strongly that a separate public facility should be built on the island. Samuel recently completed her doctorate degree after studying education and the effects of the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John’s culture and economy.
Crystal Fortwangler, a professor at LaRoche University, asked whether the National Park Service might create a unique arrangement with the territory to cede the land as it has done with tribal councils recently in two instances.
Fields responded, “There are some treaty relationships that allow for co-management,” but Fields said this was not an option for the proposed land swap. “This is the route we have taken; we have jurisdiction without having to go to Congress. We don’t have to adjust any boundaries,” he said.
Eurabaie added that pursuing another plan to obtain land would result in “postponing it for many years, perhaps a decade.”
Identifying privately owned land for a school has proved futile. Property values on St. John are higher than on St. Thomas or St. Croix, largely because of proximity to the park, so finding a property that’s affordable for municipal use is unlikely.
Chaneel Callwood, the architect for the new school’s project, said the 11.3-acre property under consideration at Catherineberg was sufficient to provide all the facilities needed for the enrollment of 460 children from pre-K through grade 12.
Fields said the NPS would continue an environmental analysis of the Catherineberg site and present a report summarizing its findings for public review this summer. A final decision document will be available by the end of 2022.
Wells-Hedrington said the curriculum and design of the school will be addressed in future meetings.