Why St. John Needs a Land Trust


Tourist brochures proudly state that “St. John is two thirds National Park.” This means that most of the development that has gone on, or will take place, is concentrated in the remaining one third. Recently, there has been a significant publicity about large condominium projects on the island, but as Doug White of the Island Green Building Association points out, less than 20 percent of the developable land on St. John has been built on. A real estate attorney has said that a significant part of their recent business has been from clients who want to subdivide their land into the smallest possible units allowed by zoning. This allows them to maximize their profit (and increase congestion as bigger houses are built on smaller lots). Unless solutions are found the situation will only get worse. Over time, St. John will be transformed to look more like Secret Harbor on St. Thomas. Our economy will suffer because as we become less and less unique, tourists will find other places to go.

Like most complex problems there is no one answer, no “silver bullet” that will solve the problem. St. John Administrator Julien Harley has called for a professional Planner to be appointed. Together with the community this Planner would develop an overall Plan for the island. This Plan would balance the pace and amount of growth with the ability of the island to absorb that growth. In addition to a Plan, we need mechanisms to enable the plan to be implemented. For example, we are all concerned about a high concentration of buildings in the areas outside the park; we want to ensure that there are green spaces where people live; we want these green spaces to be preserved and not under constant threat of development. Then we need a mechanism to ensure that permanent green spaces can be created as an integral part of the development process. The St. John Community Land Trust has been created to be such a mechanism.

The Land Trust has been established to be a non-profit, conservation organization under the rules of the IRS and the laws of the V.I. government. Our goal is to ensure that there are “Green Spaces Where Families Live.” We do this by encouraging developers and CZM to require that green space areas be set aside in all new subdivisions approved on the island. These green spaces are made permanent by donating them to the Land Trust. The developer gets a tax deduction and the people of the island know that, under V.I. law, the green space can never be built on. It won’t suddenly be a new condominium or mega villa. We are also encouraging existing developments that have green spaces to ensure that they remain green forever by donating them to the Land Trust.

We should remember that developers don’t have a factory where they manufacture land. All the developments that are causing us problems today are on land that was sold to the developer by somebody from St. John. None of us could see the trouble that the sale of this land would cause. But all the land that will ever be developed in the future is already here, owned by somebody who is well aware of the current problems and mistakes that have been made. We should learn from these mistakes. There are ways in which owners of large areas of land can ensure that future development is controlled in a way that conforms to the character of the island. Establishing green spaces is one way; restricting the height and density through Restrictive Covenants is another. The Land Trust has researched the use of Restrictive Covenants on the island. We can provide advice to owners of land on how a combination of green spaces and Restrictive Covenants can be used to preserve the character of the island.

People who are “Land Rich but Cash Poor” may, understandably, want to sell some of their land. But it can be done so that we do not repeat the problems of the past. We should learn from our mistakes, not repeat them.

Brian Bell
St. John Community Land Trust