Editor’s Note: The following letter was written by St. John resident David R. DiGiacomo to Virgin Islands National Park Superintendent Nigel Fields.
I appreciate the opportunity to offer my thoughts and comments regarding the redevelopment and management of the Caneel Bay area located in the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John.
I live on St. John, and I am a property owner. My daughter graduated from a school located on St. John. I am on the board of directors of a number of nonprofit organizations on St. John and was recently the vice president of Island Green Living Association.
You will recall that I previously provided two Notices of Intent to sue, as permitted under a number of federal environmental statutes, regarding known environmental contamination located within and on the 150 acres known as Caneel Bay Resort. The contamination has not been remediated as of this date, and I consider my legal notices served upon the park and the holder of the Retained Use Estate to give me standing to bring an action in the United States District Court if significant progress is not made to address the contamination within a reasonable amount of time. While I have not sued in federal court yet, I retain that option.
Please consider the following:
- The publication, “Caneel Bay Redevelopment and Management Plan Newsletter,” by which the NPS identified four alternatives with respect to Caneel is flawed, as is the process gathering input. The NPS has created a box (and put the public in the box) by artificially establishing what looks to be only four alternatives for the redevelopment of Caneel. In support of my statement, I bring to your attention the extensive public comment I have witnessed during which people ask “which alternative do you vote for?” The publication of the four alternatives reduces the likelihood of the public offering alternatives other than those that have been presented by NPS — in other words, “outside the box” into which NPS has placed the community. The narrowing of alternative courses of action suggests that NPS has already made a decision as to the development of Caneel. Many options should be discussed, debated and evaluated incorporating suggestions received from the public.
- The notices I provided regarding the environmental contamination on the Caneel property have been responded to by NPS in the form of additional environmental studies and suggestions for cleanup of the contamination. I provided the Notices in September and December of 2020. No action has been taken to clean up the toxic, hazardous and other waste verified by numerous engineering reports commissioned by NPS even though the existence of the waste is well documented. Any discussion regarding the redevelopment of Caneel is premature prior to the cleanup of the site. No effort has been made to evaluate and plan for the demolition and removal of the hurricane damaged structures. The structures are known, by your engineering reports, to have asbestos within them. The most recent engineering reports identify substantial asbestos piping as being located on the property. No evaluation of the extent of the contamination by such pipes has been made. I am aware that the removal of asbestos on the Cinnamon Bay site cost almost $1 million. The removal of asbestos at Caneel could far exceed that cost because there are more structures. More important might be the evaluation of historic and cultural artifacts that would be disturbed by such removal. There has been no identification of the source of funding for removal of the hazardous and toxic waste. It has been projected by NPS engineering reports that the removal of the waste at the Honeymoon Beach site would alone exceed $6 million. Where will funding for the removal come from? Until the waste and debris is removed the nature and extent of the land available for redevelopment will not be known. This process that has been commenced regarding Caneel should be stopped or suspended until the removal of waste and debris has been completed. Might one assume that the reason that NPS is exploring three of four options for private commercial development is so that the agency can recover from the future operator the money necessary to clean up environmental waste caused to the property by past operators of the RUE, and without proper oversight by NPS?
- The community engagement process has been flawed. Many residents of St. John have not heard of the NPS process. Advertising of the current process, and need for comments, has not been in the media in a manner that would alert the maximum number of people. Many people on St. John do not have computers, and aren’t able to engage in the video conferencing used by NPS. The timelines are too short to allow for meaningful input as required by NPS Director’s Order 75a, which addresses and requires meaningful public engagement.
- The process as currently engaged in violates Presidential Executive Order 12898 (Executive Order) dated Feb. 11, 1994. It requires each federal agency to identify and address disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies and activities on minority populations and low-income populations of the territory. The residents of St. John suffer from the effects of low income and poverty in greater proportions than most any populations in the U.S. The people of St. John are overwhelmingly Black, Afro Caribbean, and Hispanic, thus qualifying for the protections as contemplated in the Executive Order. I have seen no evidence that NPS has addressed the matters contained in the Executive Order.
- The governor of the Virgin Islands has recognized the people of Taino ancestry as a Native American tribe. Substantial evidence exists at the Caneel site of Taino and other peoples who settled on the site perhaps 3,000 years ago. No development of Caneel should proceed without a full assessment of the cultural and historic artifacts. There is no evidence NPS has any intention to preserve and protect such assets since even the engineering reports regarding the removal of toxic and other waste failed to address the issues related to historic and cultural artifacts. The holder of the Retained Use Estate previously disturbed ruins on the site without obtaining permission and contrary to federal statutes and regulations. The park took no actions to sanction such activities or prevent the reoccurrence of them. The past failures are indicators of an inability of the Park Service to hold operators of Caneel accountable. No budget is known to exist that would allow a full assessment of cultural and historic artifacts. No effort appears to be made to provide for the protection of Native American Graves and Repatriation of Native American Remains and Cultural Patrimony (NAGPRA). Lineal descendants of the Taino tribes have the right of possession of remains or funerary objects excavated or discovered on federal land. How will the provisions of NAGPRA be addressed? NPS preservation activities require consultation with Indian tribes under Section 106 of NAGPRA and now that the Taino tribes have been recognized they must be consulted. Representatives of the tribes are available for consultation. (I use the culturally outdated words “Indian” and “tribes” as they are in the written laws proscribing certain actions and remedies).
- I assert that existing law, including statutes and regulations, require that NPS should engage in an economic analysis of the value of the use of the Caneel property prior to attempting leasing or a concession. Land on St. John has high value. Land that is adjacent to water or has water access is extremely valuable. A review of recent property sales records shows values of properties with water access to be in excess of $17 a square foot and property not adjacent to water valued at approximately $11.50 a square foot. If it is assumed that approximately 70 acres of the Caneel property qualify as land adjacent to the water the value of that property is approximately $51,836,000. The land not adjacent to the water, approximately 80 acres, is valued at approximately $40,075,000. The total value of the land is approximately $100 million. An analysis of the use and development of Caneel should be accompanied by an appraisal which not only includes the value of the land but also the economic opportunities the use of the land affords any entity leasing the property. Until the contamination is removed from the property such an analysis cannot be undertaken.
- The Retained Use Estate (RUE) by which Mr. Rockefeller transferred the Caneel property to the United States government says the following at paragraph 2:
It is the Grantor’s expectation and intention that at some future time, to be determined by Grantor pursuant to the provisions set forth herein, the Retained Use Estate will be terminated and extinguished in order to carry out the longstanding objective of Grantor that the Premises ultimately be an integral part of the Virgin Islands National Park (the “Park”) under the jurisdiction of the Secretary for the use and enjoyment by visitors to the Park of the outstanding scenic and other features of national significance located both within the Premises and in other areas of the Park.
Further, Mr. Rockefeller said that the Premises should, to the extent feasible, be preserved in their natural condition for the public benefit, enjoyment and inspiration.
The documents released to the public as of this date do not address in any way the directions and intentions of Mr. Rockefeller.
- The Park must address the consequences of rebuilding the Caneel property on the local economy and upon the island infrastructure, and NEPA requires evaluation of many other factors. All of this work should be completed before NPS makes a decision on development, or “non-development.”
- No attempt has been made to address how housing will be provided for the workers at Caneel. If housing is necessary for the operation of Caneel there will be competition for the existing housing. Local people and ancestral families could be displaced because they can no longer afford to live on St. John currently, and more demand on housing for workers would exacerbate this problem.
- There are lodging accommodations available at all cost levels on St. John for visitors in private homes and hotels. There is no necessity to establish high-end accommodations as the market has now adjusted to accommodate the needs of the public. At the very least a study should be undertaken to determine whether the market exists for a development with high dollar accommodations similar to the “old Caneel.”
- The beaches at Caneel are “assets” that could have more value if they remain free of development. More access to pristine beaches means more opportunity for visitors to experience St. John beach experiences, and thus making tourist visits more desirable. Whatever solution is ultimately advanced should open all beaches to public access without an access fee as was previously charged by the holder of the Retained Use Estate.
- The north shore beaches are currently under tremendous pressure and are overused. Parking is a serious problem. If the Caneel site were open to the public it would take tremendous pressure off other beaches.
- No effort has been made to address the effects of the development of Caneel on endangered species such as turtles. The Park should be undertaking an environmental survey to evaluate how the past 4 ½ years of inactivity at Caneel (except for Honeymoon Beach) has affected the plants and animals at Caneel. It is possible that the inactivity has increased the likelihood of turtles thriving, and NPS should take this into consideration regarding future plans for Caneel.
- No assessment has been made to determine whether and to what extent the lands at Caneel will support wastewater treatment. Potable water sources must exist if there is development and there has been no discussion of how that will occur without adversely affecting the environment.
- Before this process proceeds further it should be determined whether there is any development at Caneel that is economically viable. A developer of a resort would expect a return on investment. It has been offered that a new resort might require $100 million of investment. Over 60 years an operator would have to recover $1 million per year to pay off the infrastructure investments. It is worrisome that the Park might have to consider allowing a developer to increase the number of rooms to make the project economically viable, thus further burdening the environment. Would the Park then have to agree to allow the developer to build multistory hotels to make the project viable? Regardless of cost to a commercial investor, NPS should not enter into any agreements of leases beyond 20 years maximum, with renewals only possible with full compliance with all applicable laws, and demonstration that the operator is promoting environmental health, and not just avoiding more damage.
- Nothing in the materials distributed addresses the directions of Congress in the enabling legislation to employ and train residents of the Virgin Islands.
- Nothing in the materials addresses the direction in the enabling legislation to administer and preserve the site in its natural condition for the public benefit and inspiration.
- The creation of the Park carried with it resentments of the residents of St. John, many of whom believed their island and lands were effectively stolen from them. No publication or proposal to date discusses how the Park intends to address those resentments which persist to this date. Should there be reparations in the form of jobs for locals, land set-asides for local use, etc.?
- St. John does not have a meeting space which allows the residents to meet to debate and discuss ideas. The lack of a public forum disables the ability of the people to collectively form positions regarding critical infrastructure issues including those related to hospitals, schools, roads, libraries and the like. Any redevelopment should make available space to build a community and cultural center of a size that would permit meaningful gatherings for discussion of important issues. Recognize that the lack of meeting spaces negatively impacts this very process that you are using to collect input.
- A longer comment period should have been established. This decision may result in a lease or concession agreement that lasts for 60 years (but shouldn’t). It is curious at best why the comment period is so short. In response to the community input that you are collecting now, you should answer this question about the short timeline. I assume that there will be a report and response to the community input that is made public.
- The Park is currently operating under a General Management Plan dated September 1983. The plan is almost 40 years old and has not been amended. It is outdated. In 1983 the park had approximately 970,000 visitors annually. The numbers today are estimated to be more than twice that. The 1983 Management Plan does not even address the Caneel property except in a few passing remarks. Presumably this was because Caneel was subject to the Retained Use Estate agreement. The 1983 plan did not analyze the capacities of the Caneel Bay property. (See Table 19, page 138.) The 1983 plan failed to identify any ruins on the Caneel property even though ruins exist and human remains and artifacts have been found on all seven beaches at Caneel. The management of cultural resources is not even mentioned regarding the Caneel Bay Plantation site. The 1983 plan requires the complete inventory and surveys of all cultural resources. (See page 57.) No inventory or survey appears to have been undertaken regarding Caneel. The 1983 Plan must be updated, which should also require a full public engagement process and a NEPA process.
- It has been suggested that NPS may not intend to comply with the NEPA process in this instance. It is hard to see how such process can be avoided without NPS violating the law.
- Much of the wealth of the nation and the Virgin Islands was made possible by the enslavement of Africans and others. The Park has failed in the past to honestly and openly discuss the horrors of slavery and what that meant on St. John. Over centuries many thousands of Black people in the Virgin Islands were forced to produce goods and services for the benefit of white land and business owners. A commission should be established to determine how the matter of slavery should be addressed and the Caneel site is a fitting place to allow that presentation and discussion to happen.
- The Park has failed in the past to make the cultural artifacts discovered on St. John available to the public in any meaningful way. Caneel is a perfect site to establish a museum and interpretative center. The Park should enlist the help of the Virgin Islands government and historical societies to establish such a center.
- The plantation ruins at Caneel should be protected and at least stabilized. Little or nothing has been done to protect and stabilize then during the term of the Retained Use Estate.
- Standards should be established related to the developments at Caneel so they are environmentally sensitive and consistent with best practices in the resort industry. If there is development of the site there should be requirements that it be carbon neutral and use renewable energy including wind and solar. Sufficient land exists to permit a solar panel field to power any development.
- Standards should exist to require that no single use plastic be allowed and recycling should be required.
- A commission or working group should be created comprising citizens of St. John, Park Service personnel and representatives of the V.I. government to coordinate critical infrastructure improvements that will be necessary or related to any development.
- The Park Service should identify in advance how it will manage and supervise not only the new construction at Caneel, if any, but supervise the ongoing operations of any lease holder or concessionaire as well. In the past there was little or no supervision of the activities of the holder of the Retained Use Estate, or holding them accountable for environmental contamination. Budgets should be established to ensure the operators are held accountable over the term of any lease or operating agreement.
- The agreements associated with the operation by any leaseholder or concessionaire should provide for revenues that go to the Virgin Islands National Park to address needs of the park. This may require an act of Congress.
- A citizens’ advisory committee comprising residents of St. John should be constituted as soon as possible to obtain meaningful ongoing community input. Groups such as the Community Foundation of St. John, Friends of the Park, St. John School of the Arts, LCCN, St. John Singers, Pan Dragons, St.JanCo, Love City Strong, Mt. Carmel Catholic Church (and other churches), Island Green Living Association, Rotary Club, Coral Bay Community Council, Save Coral Bay, St John Historical Society, Gifft Hill School (and other schools public and private), St. John Senator at Large, Taxi Association, and real estate brokers and business groups (including the Cinnamon Bay operator) could send representatives to such committee. The meetings would be open to the public and be conducted according to Robert’s Rules of Order. Minutes would be taken and the meetings would be recorded. Access by Zoom would be expected. The committee would meet monthly according to a schedule made in advance to consider relevant issues and provide recommendations to the Park.
David R. DiGiacomo,