Attorney Sues Tax Assessor, Lieutenant Governor Over Protected Land

The wetland area back from the shoreline of Fish Bay is dominated by black mangroves, mixed with other trees that are able to tolerate brackish water. (Photo by Gail Karlsson for the Fish Bay Wetlands website)

More than five years after the Island Resources Foundation attempted to finalize its operation in the U.S. Virgin Islands by passing 44 acres of environmentally sensitive, protected land in Fish Bay, St. John, to another non-profit, community-based conservation organization, a prominent St. Thomas attorney has filed a suit in V.I. Superior Court against the tax assessor and lieutenant governor.

Attorney George Dudley, who had been attempting on behalf of Island Resources to settle the matter quietly for several years without resorting to legal action, said Monday, “I got tired of being ignored by the tax assessor.”

The suit filed June 8 states, “The Tax Assessor’s unlawful acts have inflicted and continue to inflict irreparable, qualitative damage upon IRF [Island Resources Foundation] by preventing IRF from transferring the Fish Bay Properties to TVIL [Trust for Virgin Islands Land] and, consequently, preventing IRF from winding up its business and dissolving as a legal entity.”

Island Resources was established in 1970 to support environmental planning for small island development. It first attempted to transfer the land to TVIL in 2016, beginning the convoluted saga that led to another stalemate on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in April 2020.

Bruce Potter, president of Island Resources Foundation, said Monday he had been “hoping against hope” last year when the foundation made yet another attempt to get movement from the tax assessor.

But a half-century after the first Earth Day brought the matter of conservation to the front pages of America’s newspapers, on Earth Day 2020, V.I. tax assessor Ira Mills continued to insist that the sale of some of the property years earlier had rendered Island Resource’s non-profit status null and void. That, Mills said, suggests the V.I. Government could take over the sensitive area in lieu of an undetermined amount of tax owed.

In an interview in April Mills threw around the amount of $70,000, even suggesting a trade – land in lieu of property tax.

Dudley’s suit says Mills’ suggestion is illegal.

Great egret with a lizard in its mouth. (Photo by Gail Karlsson for the Fish Bay Wetlands website)

“The Tax Assessor’s improper assessment of taxes on the Fish Bay Properties and refusal to issue a tax clearance letter is unlawful,” the suit alleges. “The issuance of tax clearance letters serves the public interest by allowing the transfer of the nature conservation land to TVIL, a Virgin Islands nonprofit corporation that will protect and steward the land for future generations to enjoy. … Additionally, the public interest is always served by requiring Government officials to comply with the law.”

Mills and Lt. Gov. Tregenza Roach are not the only government officials who have been put on notice.

“V.I. Code requires the governor and attorney general also be summoned in the case,” Dudley said in an email. “Once the summonses have been signed by the Clerk of the Court and are returned to us, we will have a process server … formally serve the complaint on the AG and the Governor as prescribed by local statute. However, both the Governor and Carol Jacobs at the AG’s office have been provided courtesy copies of the complaint and are aware of the filing. … They are not going to get away with this; not this time.”

With years of successful legal wrangling behind him, Dudley said his reason for taking this on was to do something positive for the community and the environment.

“It’s time to wind up the Island Resources Foundation, and the Trust for Public Land is the perfect successor, so, why not?”

(See the Fish Bay Wetlands website.)