A major territorial park in the heart of Coral Bay became one step closer to reality last month when the V.I. Senate approved a bill which included a provision to allow the government to acquire a 170-acre parcel of land in Estate Carolina.
Senators approved the Omnibus Authorization Act on September 22, and among several provisions which pertain specifically to St. John, the act authorizes the governor to purchase Parcels 7 and 12 in Estate Carolina. The act also appropriates funds both to acquire the land and to then establish a territorial park on the property.
The bill was sent to Governor John deJongh who had 10 days from September 23 to take action on it. As of press time, deJongh had not signed the bill into law.
Parcel 12 Estate Carolina is a 1.6 acre waterfront site located across the street from the Kings Hill Road turnoff. Parcel 7 consists of about 170 acres of land beginning along Kings Hill Road roughly a half mile from Parcel 12. The property then stretches along the valley and up the hillsides comprising most of the Coral Bay valley area.
The provisions in the Omnibus Bill also provide the appropriation required for the purchase of Parcel 12, and an additional $500,000 to develop a conservation and recreation plan for the property and a design for the Territorial Park.
The land contains the well-preserved ruins of a sugar mill, sugar plantation and other structures from the plantation and post-colonial eras. The owners of the property, four beneficiaries of the Egbert Marsh Trust represented by Sheldon Marsh, wanted the land to be preserved for future generations of Virgin Islanders.
The only problem seemed to be the price tag of about $12 million. The opportunity to preserve the land, however, caught the attention of a national non-profit company which works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Legacy Program.
Senator at Large Craig Barshinger met with officials from The Conservation Fund on St. Croix a few months ago and tried to get them interested in the Coral Bay park project, he explained.
“They had a few projects they were considering and I made the plug why this would be the best use of their money,” Barshinger said. “They decided that St. John would be what they apply for this year, so The Conservation Fund selected us.”
The V.I. Department of Agriculture is applying for a $6.5 million grant from the Forest Legacy Program for the 2011 fiscal year. In order to be approved, however, the grant can only cover 75 percent of the purchase price, with the other 25 percent coming from local sources.
If signed by the governor, the Omnibus Bill Act appropriates the needed $3.5 million from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund. Money which only became available a few months ago when the senate voted —and then voted to over-ride the governor’s veto — to stop using the St. John Capital Improvement Fund to pay for island trash hauling.
“If we had not made sure that the St. John Capital Improvement Fund stop being used to haul trash and be used for capital improvements, there would be no funding source for this,” said Barshinger.“This is an example of how doing one good thing leads to another good thing. When it was time to over-ride the governor’s veto of the Capital Improvement Fund, the people really came out.”
“Residents called their senators in sufficient numbers that I had overwhelming support for an over-ride and now we have the funds to acquire land for the park,” said the senator at large.
With the bill pending, Coral Bay Community Council and the St. John Chapter of the St. John/St. Thomas Chamber of Commerce both came out in favor of the park last week. The two island organizations circulated emails urging residents to call, write and fax Government House urging the governor to sing the Omnibus Bill into law.
“You will remember in April we helped announce that the owners of the largest piece of land in Coral Bay wanted to put it in preservation,” according to the CBCC email. “Here’s the next step. We need your help now to be sure that the Governor signs the appropriation into law — and authorizes it to really happen.”
“The St. John Chapter supports this very much and wanted to give you the opportunity to also act on it if you agree with this Bill,” according to an email sent by the island chapter of the local chamber which also included CBCC’s letter.
If approved, the Omnibus Bill lays out a framework for the park to be under the direction of a territorial park system, which has not yet been organized, but could include recreational and cultural components.
The project is impressive both for the scope of the land and the speed with which it went from an idea to almost a reality.
“It was just a few months ago that this was a pipe dream,” said Barshinger. “But sometimes a dream that you focus on, the stars align, and it goes forward.”