In the biggest expansion of the V.I. National Park since its inception more than 50 years ago, the Trust for Public Land officially acquired majority interest in the 420-acre VINP inholding Estate Maho Bay on Monday, September 24, for $19 million.
The fate of the land, which stretches across five hilltops along North Shore Road and includes the pristine Maho Bay watershed, was in limbo for years.
Owned by 11 heirs of Harvey Monroe Marsh in undivided shares, the VINP purchased three shares in the property in the 1970s and TPL bought one share in 2003.
TPL reached a preliminary agreement to acquire shares from six of the remaining seven interest owners in September 2006, and finalized the deal last week giving the national non-profit conservation organization a total of seven shares of the land.
The remaining interest in the property, which still must be subdivided in local court, is being retained by one of the heirs.
TPL plans to convey the property to the VINP as soon as funds become available to repay a conservation loan, minus an 18-acre parcel which the organization may sell for “limited development” and six-acre lots retained by each of the six Marsh heirs, according to a prepared statement from TPL.
“TPL will retain 18 acres of the property, located away from the beach, and will sell the property for limited development unless funds can be raised privately to help repay a loan covering the cost of the purchase,” according to the press release.
Before the land can be transferred to the VINP, a privately funded conservation loan must be repaid, explained John Garrison, TPL’s field office director for the Southwest and Caribbean division.
“A large portion of the acquisition was funded by a conservation loan from a private source which needs to be repaid,” said Garrison. “We have to repay that loan in one of two ways — either a federal appropriation or private donations or a combination of the two. We have to do that before we can transfer the property.”
Additional Funds Needed
A major fund raising campaign launched last year netted millions, including $5 million from one anonymous donor, but more is needed, according to the release which did not disclose the total amount raised.
“The overall cost of the acquisition is $19 million,” according to the statement. “TPL has a fund raising goal of $35 million for this acquisition as well as several additional properties within the Maho Bay watershed identified by the National Park as priority acquisitions. The total will include an expected $9 million in federal funds and $26 million which will be raised from private sources.”
TPL has begun discussions with the owners of the land which the 114-unit eco-resort Maho Bay Campground leases. That lease is due to expire in 2012.
“We are looking into acquiring that property but I can’t really say anything about it at this time,” said Garrison. “We have begun discussions.”
Maho Camps Land for Sale
Someone else, however, might get there first. While the land has been on the market for at least a month, the almost 14-acre property first appeared on the St. John Multiple Listing Service on the same day TPL announced the purchase of Estate Maho Bay.
Listed by Newland Real Estate, the W-1 zoned parcel has an asking price of $32 million.
“Stunning beach front property currently utilized for eco-tourism with several cottages,” reads the MLS description. “A rare opportunity to own a W-1 property on St. John on the beach.”
TPL Eyeing Penn Property
Conservation officials are also hoping to purchase the Penn family-owned eight acre parcel on the western side of Maho Bay, Garrison added.
“We already own one acre in that area and there are another eight and some odd acres,” he said. “We are working closely with the sellers to try to acquire that too. The Penn property and Maho Bay Camps are like the two bookends to Estate Maho Bay and we want to be able to conserve the entire area.”
TPL and VINP officials celebrated the official agreement after years of negotiations.
Basking In Success
“This is one of the finest beaches in the world, and it is right in the middle of one of our nation’s most popular parks,” said Greg Chelius, director of TPL’s Florida and Caribbean program in the prepared statement. “We are excited that it will now be protected for all visitors and locals to enjoy.”
“Protection of this property has been a priority for the National Park Service for many years,” said Mark Hardgrove, the recently-appointed superintendent of the VINP. “We couldn’t be more excited that it is finally coming to fruition. Many thanks to the TPL for this partnership, which is helping to preserve one of the crown jewels of America’s park system.”
For Garrison, who formerly headed the Friends of the VINP and has worked on the Maho acquisition for years, the agreement was also a personal victory.
“I had a tremendous amount of relief after six years of working on this thing,” said Garrison. “We think it’s really going to be good for the park and for the island.”
Friends of the VINP, which was also dedicated to preserving Estate Maho Bay, celebrated the agreement as well.
“On behalf of the board, staff and members of Friends of VINP, I’d like to congratulate the TPL and express our sincere gratitude for their diligence, perseverance and generosity in ensuring the preservation of the very heart of the VINP, Estate Maho Bay,” said Friends Board of Directors’ Chairman Fraser Drummond. “The board and staff are proud to have played an active and significant role in this initiative and many thanks go to Friends members and supporters, in the Virgin Islands and throughout the country, who participated in this campaign.”
Public Support Made Difference
“Their emails and letters made the difference in helping to secure this pristine and ecologically sensitive area in its natural state for this, and future generations,” Drummond continued. “I would also like to thank Joe Kessler and recognize his influence and dedication in this effort.”
Residents across the island also lauded the conservation agreement.
“Yippee — I’m very glad that the agreement finally went though,” said Pam Dolson. “We spent a long time watching the development of the whole situation and I wasn’t sure it was going to happen for a while. But I’m so glad that everyone hung in there and got the deal done.”
Plenty of Work Left
“I think it’s wonderful to have TPL work so hard with the Park Service to protect Maho,” said Marine Ecologist Caroline Rogers. “I think Maho is one of the most beautiful beaches on St. John and it’s really important to everyone on the island.”
Celebrations aside, TPL still needs considerable funding to acquire Maho Bay Camps and the Penn property.
“There are still many needs in the VINP and we still need those donations to protect as much land as we can,” said Garrison.
For more information about TPL or to make a donation, check out the group’s Web site at www.tpl.org.