Dear Editor,

St. John desperately needs a centrally located public school. This is nothing new — St. John has never had a K-12 school and St. Johnians have been trying for generations to have one built.

One of the main hurdles to be overcome is the lack of a sufficiently large, centrally located, high, dry and relatively flat piece of land. St John is small, and almost two-thirds of St John’s land is owned by the National Park Service. This leaves very little space for essential public infrastructure, including a school.

Several years ago an 11-acre parcel, a portion of the Hammer Farm in Estate Catherineberg, was identified as having the right characteristics for a St. John educational complex. The one key stumbling block, however, was that the parcel is owned by the United States government and is part of the Virgin Islands National Park.

Efforts to enact federal legislation to enable the building of a school on land within the National Park have been ongoing since the 1990’s. Multiple delegates to Congress have pressed the issue without any tangible success. The hurdles are many — under federal law the National Park Service cannot simply donate land within a National Park, and land exchanges are subject to multiple conditions.

In October 2020 the people of St. John first learned that Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. had, a year earlier, formally offered to “swap” the offshore island of Whistling Cay for the 11 acre Catherineberg parcel within the Virgin Islands National Park. To the best of my knowledge Bryan’s offer of an 18-acre island with historic ruins was made without public consultation with the residents of St. John.

Last month, the National Park Service opened a 30-day public comment period on Bryan’s proposed land exchange. Unsurprisingly, many native St. Johnians were adamantly opposed to the “land swap” and objected to any expansion of the land holdings of the National Park. These views were eloquently expressed by Dr. Gilbert Sprauve in a letter on this page on April 21.

There is, however, an alternative approach which, with support from the right parties, might enable a central St. John school to be built on the Catherineberg parcel. In comments submitted to the National Park Service I proposed a minor expansion of the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument in exchange for the Catherineberg parcel, thereby enabling construction of a St. John educational complex.

Some background is necessary to understand the alternative proposal. On the East End of St. John there is a small popular beach, snorkel destination, and coral reef known as “South Haulover Bay.” Landward parcels at South Haulover were donated to the National Park Service in 2012, almost a decade after the Coral Reef National Monument was created. For this reason not all of the submerged lands (including the coral reef) and waters of South Haulover are within the National Monument, and are trust lands of the Virgin Islands.

So, rather than swapping the land of Whistling Cay — something that meets with strong objections from many of us — my proposal is to expand the Coral Reef National Monument with about 7 acres of submerged land at South Haulover. This would make the National Monument boundaries coincide with the National Park boundary, as it was expanded in 2012. The value of the 7 acres of submerged land is comparable to the 11 acres of Catherineberg land, a key requirement of an exchange.

No proposal is perfect. There will certainly be some recreational boaters who will object to a few-acre expansion of the no-anchor zone of the National Monument. This could, however, be mitigated through the installation of transient moorings as is done within other National Park waters. Some fishermen may object in principle to any expansion of the monument. However, unlike a land swap, the exchange of submerged land and water does not raise the same objections as the Whistling Cay swap under consideration.

Moving this proposal forward and through to completion will require the coordinated support and efforts by the National Park Service, the Department of the Interior, the Virgin Islands Legislature, and the governor of the Virgin Islands. And, needless to say, it will require the support of a majority of St. John residents. It can be a win-win-win: for the National Park Service, who will be able to further protect endangered habitat; for the government of the Virgin Islands, who will be able to retain the land at Whistling Cay; and most of all for the youth of St. John, who will gain an educational complex appropriately located in beautiful surroundings conducive to learning.

— David Silverman, St. John