Interior Officials Meet on STJ: Will Caneel Bay Be on the Agenda?

Caneel Bay Resort sparkles in this view taken from the North Shore Road overlook. (Source photo by Amy H. Roberts)

High-level officials for the U.S. Department of the Interior are scheduled to be on St. John on Tuesday to discuss issues related to the Virgin Islands National Park, according to Todd Sampsell, president of Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park.

New V.I. National Park Superintendent Nigel Fields, left, and new Friends of the V.I. National Park President Todd Sampsell wait for their introduction to members of the Friends at the group's annual meeting Sunday at Trunk Bay beach pavilion.
Friends of the V.I. National Park President Todd Sampsell, center, at the group’s 2019 annual meeting Sunday at Trunk Bay beach pavilion. (Source file photo by Judi Shimel)

Sampsell said he and several board members from Friends of the Park are scheduled to meet with Rob Wallace, assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, and Douglas Domenech, assistant secretary for Insular and International Affairs, both of whom serve with the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Although details of the meeting had not been finalized as of Monday morning, Sampsell said it was his understanding that the officials were on the island to look at Virgin Islands National Park operations and the proposed land swap between the Virgin Islands government and the National Park Service. The land swap will facilitate the construction of a new school on St. John.

Douglas Domenech is one of the officials from the Interior Department who will be on St. John on Tuesday. (Photo from the Department of the Interior website)

A spokesperson for Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. confirmed that the governor will also meet with the officials from the Interior Department and tour St. John with them on Tuesday.

It has also been reported that Delegate Stacey Plaskett will also be on St. John on Tuesday, although the Source has not received confirmation from her office.

Perhaps it is only a coincidence, but Gary Engle, the managing partner of CBI Acquisitions, the leaseholder for the Caneel Bay Resort, is also on St. John. This has led to speculation that Engle’s visit was timed to provide a face-to-face meeting with officials from the Interior Department.

CBIA’s Gary Engle and Patrick Kidd survey the damage to Caneel Bay’s guestrooms in April 2018. (Source file photo by Amy H. Roberts)

CBIA’s control of the resort has become one of the most contentious issues on St. John.

CBIA holds the right to operate the 130-acre resort on land deeded to the National Park Service through a Retained Use Estate, a legal document similar to a lease. Since acquiring the Retained Use Estate agreement in 2003, CBIA has paid no rent, with the understanding that when the agreement expires in 2023, the entire property reverts to the stewardship of the National Park Service.

In 2010, the U.S. Congress passed legislation granting CBIA the exclusive right to negotiate for a 40-year lease after the Retained Use Estate agreement expires.

Now Sampsell is concerned that a deal between CBIA and the Interior Department will be sealed this week without community input.

“CBIA has not had a great track record,” said Sampsell. “We have said often that the Retained Use Estate has not been maintained.”

He cited CBIA’s failure to rebuild the resort after it was destroyed by Hurricane Irma in 2017.

He also cited CBIA’s failure to complete environmental studies that were a requirement for the 2010 noncompetitive lease to be fulfilled. These studies revealed serious contamination from the disposal of hazardous waste on the Caneel Bay property. The studies and remediation plan mandated by the National Environmental Protection Act have never been completed, Sampsell said.

Sampsell said so much has changed since the 2010 bill was passed that the federal government should rethink the future of the Caneel property.

“The Friends has always maintained that because of its importance to the economy of the island, the resort should be rebuilt,” Sampsell said, but “maybe it should be with a different footprint, or maybe we should consider a mixed-use option, like a hotel and a campground.”

Sampsell said interest in obtaining the property has been high.

“There are a lot of other players, including big hotel groups and other interested players, who want to move Caneel forward,” he said.

On Oct. 31, Raf Muilenburg, an attorney who practices on St. John, sent a letter to Interior Department officials notifying them of a proposal made by an investment group.

“The investors/developers will commit, upfront, that they will, among other things: Rebuild Caneel as a first-class resort that embraces the park’s role in protecting St. John’s natural beauty and heritage; work cooperatively and transparently with the community; clean up all current hazardous waste sites; pay employees a ‘living wage’ and maintain year-round employment; and pay a substantially higher share of annual revenues to the National Park Service/Department of Interior than what we understand is currently being offered,” the letter said.

Muilenburg said the investors were seeking a meeting with Interior Department officials and also with the current resort management “to reach a negotiated resolution to buy them out of their remaining interest, including assumption of all environmental liabilities.”

Sampsell is calling for the Interior Department officials to meet with the community to hear their ideas.

“If CBIA has the best option, then great, but let’s have some conversation,” he said. “Let’s hear from St. John what’s best for St. John. We want a fair and transparent process.”

The Source reached out to Engle for an interview, but Patrick Kidd, Caneel Bay’s director of marketing, said, “I am sorry, but Gary is only on St. John for a couple of hours and is fully committed during this time.”