Almost fifty years after the establishment of the V.I. National Park, conservationists are celebrating the latest environmental victory for St. John after the announcement the large north shore in-holding at Estate Maho Bay will largely remain a green space, thanks to the Trust for Public Land.
The national nonprofit conservation group announced it had signed a contract to purchase and preserve 415-acres of the approximately 438-acre Estate Maho Bay — which stretches from Maho Bay Campground across five hillsides and includes a sensitive and pristine watershed — if TPL can raise the funds.
Although TPL officials did not release the price of the land, stating the contract stipulates the price to remain confidential, the group did announce that it must raise “millions” in order to make the purchase.
Must Raise Millions
“TPL has been working on preserving Maho Bay for more than five years, and while there have been a lot of challenges, it looks like we’re finally on the road,” Greg Chelius, director of TPL’s program in Florida and the Caribbean said in a prepared statement. “We have a lot of hurdles to go, and we must raise millions of dollars to make this happen, but we’re confident that Estate Maho Bay will be protected.”
The fate of the V.I.N.P. in-holding has been in limbo for years. The land is owned by 11 heirs of Harvey Monroe Marsh, who each have an equal share of the undivided land. In the 1970s, the VINP purchased three of the 11 shares and TPL bought one share in 2003. TPL also recently purchased a one-acre lot at the far end of Maho Bay beach, which abuts Estate Maho Bay.
The share-owners have been in district court for at least 10 years trying to partition the property — to no avail.
Simons’ Demands Not Popular
Last year, news circulated that New York-based billionaire James Simons was interested in acquiring the property. Other than a family compound and “think tank,” Simons announced that the remainder of the land would be put into a conservation easement, as long as the VINP agreed to a number of demands, according to the director of the Friends of the VINP, Joe Kessler.
Simons wanted to divert the North Shore Road where it parallels Maho Bay beach, to construct a private dock at the beach and drain nearby wetlands, Kessler explained at the time.
The list of demands were met with opposition by the Friends, who campaigned against the proposal. The contract with Simons expired before any progress was made, and the shareholders headed back to the negotiation table.
On September 5, TPL issued a prepared statement announcing it had signed contracts with six of the seven heirs who own the property.
The TPL “has signed a contract to buy and preserve a 415-acre property in the heart of St. John that ultimately will become part of the V.I. National Park,” according to the statement. “It would be the biggest preservation project on St. John since the National Park was created in 1956.”
Each of the six heirs is retaining a six-acre lot, with the ability to build up to two houses, according to TPL’s release.
The eleventh share is being retained by the seventh heir, who did not sign a contract with TPL, the release stated. The hold-out heir’s case is still pending in V.I. Superior Court.
TPL’s interest in the land dates back at least five years, to when John Garrison became the group’s Southwest Florida Office Director. Garrison previously served as the director of the Friends of the VINP.
Credit to the Heirs and Friends
“Preservation of this property will be the culmination of many, many years of work,” he said in the TPL statement. “A lot of credit goes to the heirs, who were willing to work with us and gave us a significant bargain on the sale, as well as to the Friends group for their continued support.”
Current Director of the Friends of the VINP, Joe Kessler, applauded TPL’s announcement.
“The preservation of Estate Maho Bay, one of the most popular and cherished areas within the VINP, is a significant accomplishment that will benefit the people of St. John and all those who will be able to visit and enjoy this magnificent area,” he said in TPL’s statement. “The Friends and all those who love the VINP will be forever grateful to TPL for their persistence and imagination in making this a reality, to the donor for their generosity in financing the acquisition and to the heirs for their foresight and commitment to preserving Estate Maho Bay.”
“We are pleased to have been a part of making this happen,” Kessler added.
A spokesperson for the Marsh family stressed the need to protect the area for future generations, according to the TPL release.
“Maho Bay has been in the family for over 100 years, so it is important to the family to retain ancestral home sites and, at the same time, preserve the natural beauty of the estate for future generations to enjoy,” said the family’s spokesperson.