Historic Hearing on St. John July 9 Will Deal with Land and Water Issues

St. John will be the site of a U.S. Congressional Subcommittee on Insular Affairs hearing on Monday evening, July 9, at 6 p.m. at the Cruz Bay Legislature building — marking only the second time in history a federal subcommittee hearing has been hosted in Love City.

Expanding territorial waters and relocating the Cruz Bay public school will take center stage at the hearing as congress members hear testimony regarding House of Representatives Bills 53 and 59.

Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen, chair of the Insular Affairs Subcommittee — a part of the Committee on Natural Resources — insisted on convening the hearing on St. John so committee members could hear directly from residents, she explained.

Hearing from Residents
“We want representatives of the people of St. John to let the committee know how they feel about these issues,” said Christensen. “It is an important hearing and an official hearing of a committee of the House of Representatives. It goes into the public domain and the record of the work of the House of Representatives.”
After years of talk and no action, H.R. 53 proposes relocating the Julius E. Sprauve School out of Cruz Bay by leasing a 55-acre parcel of V.I. National Park land in Catherineberg.

While most residents agree JESS should be out of the downtown area, how to go about obtaining VINP land has been discussed for years while children continue attending the Cruz Bay school.

“The school needs to be moved — there are no two ways about it,” said Alvis Christian, executive director of the John’s Folly Learning Institute. “When you look at JESS, within 50 feet in any direction, you have bars. That is not a pleasant environment and now with the upcoming turn-around it will get even worse.”

99-Year Lease Proposed
Although previous discussions centered around a land swap, the National Park School Lease Act would grant the V.I. government a 99-year lease for 55 acres of the Bishop property at Parcel #6 Catherineberg.
“We’ve tried to address this need in several ways,” said Christensen. “The first was a land exchange that had been in the works for at least 10 years and has not moved forward.”

The proposed land exchange, which called for swapping off-shore cays for a portion of equally valued VINP land, was stalled due to local government inaction and the sensitive issue of releasing additional land to the park, Christensen explained.

“There are voices on St. John who don’t want to give anything else up to the park and I am very sensitive to those calls,” said Christensen.

A lease agreement, however, would allow the V.I. government to obtain land without handing over any additional acreage to the expansive VINP.

While land above ground will be one hot topic at the hearing, the issue of submerged lands will be on  people’s minds as well.

H.R. 59 proposes to convey all submerged lands between St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John — which is not already part of the VINP — to the government of the Virgin Islands. The bill also aims to extend territorial boundaries from three to nine miles off-shore.

“We are going to expand our authority over a wider stretch of submerged land,” said Christensen.

Nine Miles Off-shore  
While most areas include a three mile off-shore radius for water lines, Puerto Rico’s authority extends nine miles off its shores. The V.I. is hoping to have the same distinction, Christensen explained.

The bill attempts to off-set the problems faced by local fishermen, according to the delegate.

“This bill arose from some of the issues our fishing community has had with mandatory closures and so forth,” Christensen said. “We want to make sure that our people who rely on the sea for their livelihood have an opportunity to continue to do that.”

A self-described conservationist, Christen-sen said a balance is needed to manage local fisheries.
“I am a conservationist myself,” said Christensen. “But, really, the fishermen are the ones who have the most at stake. They know that conservation is necessary, but we need to bring a little more balance that takes into account the facts that we have two federal monuments and territorial water protections.”

Written and Oral Testimony
Although there will only be time for a certain number of testifiers, all residents are urged to submit written comments, explained Christensen.

“We can’t have as many testifiers orally as we’d like,” the delegate said. “But a written statement coming to our subcommittee that night or two weeks after is fully equal to any oral testimony given and is part of the subcommittee’s deliberations.”

“We want to encourage people to provide written statements to the subcommittee,” Christensen added.
Whether people agree with the proposed legislation or not, it is important for residents to attend the hearing, according to community activist Lorelei Monsanto.

“People need to come out,” said Monsanto. “Whether for or against this initiative, they need to come out. This is our opportunity to present our ideas to the U.S. Congress.”

“I welcome the meeting and truly encourage all St. John residents to come out and voice their opinions,” said Christensen.

Written testimony can be submitted at the hearing on Monday, July 9, at 6 p.m. at the Legislature Building or mailed to the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs at 1324 Longworth House Office Building,Washington, DC 20515, or faxed to (202) 225-1931.