More than 100 people attended the Congressional Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Insular Affairs hearing on Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen’s proposed bill, H.R. 53, which would authorize the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to enter into a long-term lease with the V.I. Government on behalf of the V.I. National Park for the establishment of a school.
It was standing room only at the St. John Legislature building on Monday evening, July 9.
Discussions on moving the Julius E. Sprauve School out of Cruz Bay have been ongoing for nearly 30 years, during which the island’s school-age population has doubled, explained Christensen.
“I don’t think there is any more important issue before the people of St. John,” said the delegate, who mentioned the 2004 death of Javon Jade Alfred, who was struck by a delivery truck and killed on his way home from school, as one of the reasons the school needs to be moved from its dangerous location. “The most important thing is getting our children out of harm’s way.”
As the town of Cruz Bay expands and the school-age population of St. John grows — 304 students now attend public school on St. John, 240 at JESS and 64 at the Guy Benjamin School in Coral Bay — the area around JESS has become congested, prompting the search for a new location for an island public education complex.
The realization that the V.I. Government does not own sufficient property on St. John on which to construct a new school to accommodate kindergarten through 12th grade prompted the move to obtain land from the VINP, either through a land swap, lease or outright conveyance.
Bill Doesn’t Specify Parcel
While H.R. 53 does not specify which parcel of VINP land will be leased by the V.I. Government for the school, a 55-acre plot in Estate Catherineberg has been identified as a potential location.
The plot was not part of the land donated to the VINP by Laurance Rockefeller in 1956 and is not covered by the reversionary clause restricting the use of the Rockefeller properties to VINP purposes, explained VINP Acting Superintendent Martha Bogle.
A portion of the 55-acre Estate Catherineberg parcel on Centerline Road is believed to contain fewer historic resources than other parts, which contain historic ruins including a sugar mill, although an inventory of the site has not been conducted, added Bogle.
Although this land has been identified as a possible location for the V.I. Government to lease for the construction of a mid-island school, the Secretary of the Interior does not currently have the authority to enter into a lease, explained Bogle.
“The Secretary does not have any other authority to allow the construction of a school on property owned and managed by the National Park Service,” Bogle said during her testimony before Subcommittee on Insular Affairs Chair Christensen and member Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.
“The 1998 National Parks Omnibus Act does give the Secretary the authority to lease buildings and associated property, as long as the lease does ‘not result in degradation of the purposes and values of the unit,’” the acting superintendent said.
“While public education is not in conflict with the purpose of the VINP, the construction of a complex of buildings appears to be in conflict with the direction given by the Park’s authorizing legislation, which states, ‘The National Park shall be administered and preserved by the Secretary of the Interior in its natural state,’” Bogle added in her prepared testimony.
Concerns of Precedent
Historic property can only be leased under certain circumstances, Bogle continued.
“The National Historic Preserva-tion Act gives the Secretary the authority to lease historic property, including historic buildings and historic lands, but only if the lease ‘will adequately insure the preservation of the historic property,’” the NPS official said. “New construction of an education complex would not insure that the historic character of the land in question is preserved.”
“The Land and Water Conser-vation Act authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to convey a freehold or leasehold to interest in lands within the National Park System, but this authority does not apply to ‘property within National Parks,’” Bogle said.
Under questioning, Bogle raised the concern of a precedent being set should the VINP lease land to the V.I. Government.
“There’s no doubt there’s a dire need for a school on St. John, but this would possibly set a precedent for leases happening in the future elsewhere,” said the VINP acting superintendent. “There’s really not a precedent for a lease such as this.”
Following National Park Service protocol, Bogle did not offer an opinion on the bill at the hearing.
Friends of the VINP President Joe Kessler, however, disagreed with the bill during his testimony.
“While we support swapping land, we have fundamental concerns and misgivings about providing VINP land through some sort of long-term lease arrangement as proposed by this legislation,” said Kessler. “Let’s be frank; depending on the terms and conditions of a long-term lease, the arrangement is the de facto sale or gift of this property to the V.I. Government and will result in the net loss of National Park property and resources. Clearly, this land will never revert to being parkland.”
“Viable, Preferable Alternative” to Lease
Leasing land to the government for the purpose of building a school would threaten national parks nationwide, Kessler continued.
“Without question, this legislation would diminish, and therefore impair, the natural and cultural resources of the V.I. National Park,” he said. “Furthermore, it will set a precedent that would in turn threaten national parks throughout the country. We wouldn’t dream of selling off or giving away parts of Yosemite or Grand Canyon national parks, nor should we sell or give away a part of the VINP.”
“This should not be given serious consideration, since there is a viable and preferable alternative,” Kessler added, referring to a land swap.
Several testifiers offered emotional words in support of the lease, including St. John Administrator Leona Smith, who announced the backing of the current administration.
“The deJongh-Francis administration wholly supports the securing of the land that is necessary for the construction of a school on St. John,” said Smith. “The administration looks forward to passage of the bill and the subsequent negotiations toward identifying the most suitable location for the school’s development. I cannot emphasize enough the need for the process to get underway in earnest that will lead to the construction of a new school on St. John.”
Senator at Large Carmen Wesselhoft testified to the dire need for a high school on St. John, and expressed her opinion that the VINP should outright give land back to the people of St. John.
VINP Altered Life on St. John
“The question that many St. Johnians are asking is whether or not there is some legal reason why we must lease this land from the federal government,” said Wesselhoft. “Why can’t this land be given outright to the people of St. John? What purpose does a 90 year lease serve?”
While the VINP is a huge tourist attraction and has created many jobs for St. Johnians, the attention the Park has attracted to the island has driven up real estate prices, and the slew of tourists visiting St. John each year have altered St. Johnians’ way of life, according to Wesselhoft.
“When Rockefeller created what is now known as the VINP, he said that it was never to create a hardship for the people of St. John,” said the senator at large. “Well, today it has created a hardship in terms of lack of land for a school. The National Park owns two-thirds of St. John, or approximately 9,000 acres; if even just 200 of these acres were returned to the people of St. John, we could greatly relieve this hardship for decades to come.”
Wesselhoft estimated the that students in grades 10 through 12 spend between one and two hours each way getting over to St. Thomas. The Senator at Large estimated the cost to construct a new school on St. John at around $3 million, which St. Thomas-St. John District Acting Superintendent Lisa Hassell-Forde called “conservative.”
“We wouldn’t want a half-done facility,” said Hassell-Forde. “We’ll want things like an auditorium and a gymnasium. If you live in the St. John District, you should be able to attend school in the St. John District comfortably.”
Many testifiers expressed concern that 10 acres may not be enough to adequately accommodate a kindergarten through 12th grade school.
55-Acre Parcel Introduced
Lorelei Monsanto of the One Campus Group discussed the history of the 55-acre parcel of land in Estate Catherineberg, which was deeded to the National Park in 1968 by its owner, Ethel May Bishop, who died in March 2006.
“That parcel, known as Number 6 Estate Catherineberg, consists of 55 acres of land and is not subject to any reversionary clause,” said Monsanto. “The NPS noted this is just one of several land parcels managed by them that has this condition. Based on its location, this parcel seems to be the best location for the project we are now considering.”
Under questioning, Monsanto revealed the land is generally flat, with several guts that would need to be avoided.
Fifty-five acres would be suitable to construct an elementary, junior high and high school complex, explained Kristen Cox of theOne Campus Group.
“We researched online, and an elementary school requires 10 to 12 acres; a middle school requires 15 to 20 acres; and a high school requires 25 acres or more,” said Cox. “Fifty-five acres would probably just do it for us.”
Several St. Johnians delivered impassioned pleas for the approval of the bill H.R. 53.
“As a youngster and later as a teenager, I was privileged to be in the company of my siblings and other relatives as we roamed across the landscape hunting and collecting bait for fishing around the islands and cays that surrounded the main island of St. John,” said Gaylord Sprauve. “We enjoyed the land and we enjoyed the sea. We did this before there was ever a National Park in our midst and we enjoyed our experiences without restrictions other than those that were self-imposed.”
Children’s Needs Before Land Preservation
Many testifiers were against the idea of swapping V.I. Government land with the VINP.
“I don’t believe we should enlarge the Park with any more V.I. land, period,” said Sprauve, to which the audience erupted in applause.
Monsanto spoke out against the possibility of swapping government land on St. Croix.
“Why should we swap precious land on St. Croix?” she said. “We no longer enjoy the Park. It is a constant fight every day with this Park.”
“Our sister islands have things they need and it’d be unjust and unfair (to swap land from other islands),” Monsanto added.
The needs of children should come before the protection of land, Monsanto continued.
“The children of this community are diamonds,” she said. “They have to be polished. We’re not going to put them on the sidelines to protect lands.”
“We have to make sure they have everything everyone else is afforded,” Monsanto added.
The idea of asking the NPS to outright donate land to the people of St. John is still on the table, Christensen explained.
“We have not totally ruled out the idea of conveyance,” said Christensen. “I understand this is the preference of the people of St. John. The issue is providing a safe, nurturing and supportive educational environment for our children; 30 years is too long.”
The subcommittee will accept written testimony up to 10 business days following the hearing. To submit written testimony, write to the Honorable Donna Christensen, Chair, Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Committee on Natural Resources, 1337 Longworth Hob, Washington, D.C. 20515.