Caneel Bay: Battle Over Lease is Part of a Larger Political Conflict

This is the fourth of four stories on developments around the Caneel Bay Resort, which has been closed since Hurricane Irma struck the territory in September 2017.

Gary Engle, CEO and chairman of Stoneleigh Capital LLC, the parent company of CBI Acquisitions which owns Caneel Bay Resort, has been meeting with former employees and St. John community members since late April. He has been hoping to win support for a bill that is now before Congress which would allow CBIA to continue to maintain control of the property for 60 years beginning in 2023 when its present agreement expires.

The bill, HR 4731, was proposed in December by Virgin Islands Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett. From Plaskett’s point of view, the bill will assure that the resort will be rebuilt quickly and provide needed jobs for Virgin islanders. From Engle’s point of view, its purpose is to assure that CBIA will have control of the property long enough to recoup the estimated $100 million he says CBIA needs to invest to rebuild the storm-damaged property.

The resort, built by Laurance Rockefeller in 1956 when he helped establish the Virgin Islands National Park, sits on 170 acres of land within the park’s boundaries and is subject to strict development guidelines by the National Park Service under a retained use estate, or RUE. In 2010, Congress passed a bill allowing CBIA to negotiate with the National Park Service for a 40-year extension of the RUE.

However, Engle said negotiations with the NPS broke down after six years and sees no future in continuing talks.

Engle said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke supports his bill and is ready to sign off on it as soon as it passes Congress and is signed by the president.

Concerned community members say the bill does not offer sufficient protection to the natural and cultural resources and does not adhere to the Rockefeller’s original intentions to make the park more accessible to the public.

Local environmentalists see HR 4731 as a means to bypass environmental regulations, and they see Zinke’s eagerness to sign the legislation as part of his pro-development agenda.

“There is a battle being waged between the agency staff and political appointees,” Engle acknowledged. “Mr. Zinke’s philosophy is to see federal lands generate income for the government.”

National news organizations have been reporting on recent disruptive action within the National Park Service, which is part of the Department of the Interior overseen by Zinke.

In January, nearly all the members of the National Park Service’s Advisory Board resigned, citing Zinke’s unwillingness to meet with them as their main reason. Read the related NPR story here.

The Washington Post reported in April that senior executive service managers within the NPS were being forced to take new positions or resign. According to the Post, “Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his deputies have emphasized that they see shifting Senior Executive Service (SES) officials to different locations as a way to invigorate the department’s approach to decision-making. But some career staffers and outside advocacy groups have suggested such moves can, in some cases, amount to retaliation for employees who have spoken out against the administration’s policies – especially given comments by Zinke that he has ‘30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.’”

The disruption within the National Park Service has trickled down to the Virgin Islands National Park. There’s been no strong voice of advocacy for the park since VINP Superintendent Brion FitzGerald retired in January 2017. Since then, the NPS has appointed only acting superintendents, including two acting superintendents who have served for only four months before returning to their previous positions.

Caneel Bay’s Executive Director Brad Dow the transient nature of recent park leadership has been a problem.

“I think it’s important that we have a permanent superintendent assigned to the park,” Dow said.

In spite of conflicts going on in Washington, Caneel Bay has always had a cooperative relationship with the Virgin Islands National Park, he said.

Shared content for Virgin Islands Source and St. John Tradewinds. 


  1. Hawks nest side of Caneel should revert to the NPS. Expanding hawksnest park beach to encompass entire bay would help with horrendous overcrowding of the park. Caneel guests rarely choose the beach at caneel that is on hawksnest side. The compromise may solve the issue.