ST. JOHN — The Caneel Bay Resort has been a hot topic lately, with two recent meetings dedicated to discussing the resort’s past, present and future as an important deadline looms.
On Sept. 30, 2023, the Retained Use Estate, an agreement between the National Park Service and resort owner CBI Acquisitions that allows Caneel to operate on NPS land, is set to expire. NPS officials, including Virgin Islands National Park Superintendent Nigel Fields, recently hosted a listening session where members of the public were invited to answer the following:
How would you describe your personal or professional connection to Caneel Bay?
When you think of the ecological and cultural features of Caneel Bay, what is most important to protect and preserve?
What have been the biggest challenges historically with access and operations at Caneel Bay?
What do you see as the biggest opportunity to improve operations at Caneel Bay as NPS considers the future of the site?
The listening session was attended by close to 100 people, who shared their responses in smaller breakout groups. Attendees ranged from St. Johnians and longtime Caneel guests to scientists and cultural resource experts. Many agreed that the natural resources and historic structures on the site should be preserved, along with Taino artifacts and relics of the 1733 slave revolt, which took place in part on the Caneel Bay property.
Some participants noted that the resort’s luxury high-end experience isolated visitors from the Virgin Islands community and culture, while others wondered how environmental degradation on the site will be mitigated.
The biggest challenges with access and operations at the resort were myriad. Environmental hazards and the inability of residents to access the property were mentioned, as was the need to move away from the romanticization of the property’s ruins and the island’s colonial period.
Attendees suggested the site’s history, including the 1733 insurrection, should be acknowledged, and the idea was raised to build a museum that highlights St. John culture and history in a way that’s meaningful.
Comments collected during the listening session will be shared with officials of NPS and the Department of the Interior.
Several of the themes raised at the listening session last week were delved into during St. JanCo’s Future of Caneel Bay Panel Discussion. The panel was moderated by Hadiya Sewer and included Fields, Crystal Fortwangler of La Roche University, attorney David DiGiacomo and Cletis Clendinen representing the office of V.I. Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett.
The discussion, which aired live on WTJX and was streamed on the local NPR affiliate’s Facebook page, began with a brief history of Caneel Bay, which was established as a winter resort in the 1930s. It was later donated to the NPS by Jackson Hole Preserve in 1983, subject to the RUE, which stipulates that the RUE’s holder must follow NPS leasing policies, maintain the property’s original footprint, keep its general character, and it limits the number of accommodations on the site, among other restrictions.
DiGiacomo, who in September 2020 served notice to CBI Acquisitions Managing Partner Gary Engle of his intent to sue based on contamination at the property, listed numerous examples of pollution at Caneel Bay, including a landfill and dump site near Honeymoon Bay that the attorney claims was never authorized under territorial law. A 2012 NPS report showed nearly eight acres of contamination including unmarked and unlabeled 55-gallon drums found in a wooded area on the property, and a 2014 NPS study showed semi-volatile organic compounds in a drainage ditch that drains on the western shore of Caneel Bay Beach, said DiGiacomo.
“Where did all those toxic chemicals go?” the attorney asked in regards to Hurricane Irma hitting the island in 2017. “We really don’t know. Removal action is necessary to address the migration of contaminated soil, water, and the threat to public safety.”
DiGiacomo was spurred on to file his 2020 intent to sue when he learned that Engle refused to allow NPS employees onto the Caneel Bay site for additional environmental work including drilling test wells to test groundwater, the attorney said.
Since that time, field investigations were completed in February for NPS’s Environmental Evaluation and Cost Analysis process including collecting soil samples, conducting surveys to find buried waste, and visually inspecting building materials for signs of asbestos. These findings will be conveyed in a June 10 public meeting.
While the NPS has responded to DiGiacomo’s filing, Engle has yet to respond.
“A clean Caneel is in everyone’s interest and would demonstrate a commitment to preserve and protect one of the most unique sites in the entire world,” said DiGiacomo.
He encouraged interested parties to share their thoughts with the NPS during the open comment period, which closes May 7.
“Make your voice heard for the lands and waters that can’t speak for themselves,” he said.
Plaskett’s representative Clendinen clarified that the delegate’s office is not involved in negotiations between NPS and CBI Acquisitions, but encouraged the public to share their comments with NPS and Plaskett’s office. Superintendent Fields also asked the public to come forward during the comment period, acknowledging that the listening session was likely inaccessible to some interested parties due to the virtual format.
“It’s critically important with the amount of redevelopment that has to happen that the community give their input,” said Fields. “We want to hear especially from St. Johnians and Virgin Islanders. We want to know what future you can imagine, what you’d like to see beyond tourism and hospitality. Please, if you can take the time to sit with a family member, friend, or neighbor, to help them send a few comments or statements, that would be very helpful.”
Fortwangler’s comments delved into the topics of environmental justice, environmental racism, disaster capitalism and gentrification, all of which are affecting St. Johnians, she said. The impending RUE expiration presents a unique opportunity for the island of St. John, she explained.
“There are increasingly fewer spaces on St. John where St. Johnians and Virgin Islanders feel comfortable,” said Fortwangler. “Caneel Bay is one of the last opportunities for St. Johnians and Virgin Islanders to have such a space; it’s such a key location to shift the conversation. The NPS is in a position to help stop the full-on gentrification of St. John. I don’t see a way around the Park Service and the Department of the Interior having to pay attention to the realities of St. John today.”
Public comments on the future of Caneel Bay can be shared before May 7 by visiting go.nps.gov/caneelbay, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or by sending written comments to Virgin Islands National Park, Attn: Caneel Bay Redevelopment, 1300 Cruz Bay Creek, St. John, V.I. 00830.
A general NPS open house is set for May 13, and the NPS will present its EE/CA findings at a June 10 public meeting. The end of the EE/CA comment period is July 25.