Maho Faces Protection and Development

The long-feared break-up of the major privately-held parcel in the V.I. National Park may become a reality, and still protect the most sensitive areas while opening as much as half of the 440-acre parcel for development.

After months of debate and secret negotiations concerning the property in pristine Estate Maho Bay, the heirs of Herbert Marsh, the National Park Service (NPS) and the Trust for Public Land (TPL) are heading back to court to divide the land.

The large tract of land, which stretches across five mountain tops along the North Shore Road, is owned collectively by the three groups. The Marsh heirs own seven of the 11 undivided shares, the NPS owns three and the TPL owns one.

Although TPL recently purchased its share of the Estate—in addition to a contiguous corner beachfront parcel—the NPS has acknowledged for years it could not purchase the remaining interests in the property at current market prices.

Six of the seven Marsh heirs signed purchase contract options with New York billionaires James and Marilyn Simons, who were negotiating with the NPS and TPL to acquire their four shares of the property.

Demand To Alter Maho Bay
The Simons had offered to put 240 acres of the Estate Maho land in a conservation easement in exchange for the NPS and TPL shares. They also had a number of demands, including diverting the North Shore Road at Maho Bay, building a 120-foot dock at the beach and draining the nearby wetlands.

Now, however, talks between the parties have halted.

“The Park Service and TPL have refused to negotiate on the Simons’ demands,” said Joe Kessler, president of Friends of the V.I. National Park. “The next step is to take it to partition.”

The parties have been in litigation over the land for years, but the judge wanted them to sort it out for themselves, Kessler added.

Court To Partition Land
The land cannot be sold in its present undivided state, so the V.I. courts will now decide how to partition the 440 acres. The process could take years, but eventually the NPS will own about 160 acres, the TPL will claim 40, and the heirs will have the title to the remaining 240 acres.

The Marsh heirs would also partition their seven shares into about 34 acres each. The Simons could then negotiate with the six heirs interested in selling.

The Simons had planned to construct several structures, including a family compound, homesites, and a think tank on the land.

The land would probably be divided in contiguous pieces, Kessler added.

“My assumption is that where you have a group, like the NPS and TPL, they would have one contiguous piece of land,” he said. “The Simons group would then have the other portion. The NPS wants to protect the land that is most ecologically threatened in the area.”

Protecting Sensitive Areas
The NPS is interested in securing ownership of the low lying areas near Maho Bay beach, and steep highland areas that could be easily damaged by construction, Kessler continued.

“I know that the NPS has a plan for what land they will request,” he said.

Selling to the Simons might actually be a good option, according to Kessler.

“At this point, I think I share the Park’s and TPL’s view that the heirs selling to the Simons is probably better than some wholesale,” he said, “and yet, giving in to to their demands would have meant the community losing access to Maho Bay.

The Simons are more environmentally minded than many other people.”

“I think that it is too early to tell whether this is a win or a loss,” Kessler added.

Campaigning Against Demands
The Friends of the V.I. National Park spearheaded a campaign against the Simons demands, Kessler added.

“We had well over 3,000 people visit our Web site for information about this issue,” he said. “We also had about 600 people write letters or send faxes to the NPS Director, Fran Mainella, opposing the dock, the road diversion and the wetlands drainage.”