Virgin Islands Daily News
Guest editorial for July 29
Maho Bay is being seriously threatened and requires the urgent and concerted attention of everyone who enjoys the easy access to the beautiful beach at Maho Bay and values the crystal-clear waters of that bay. Although within the overall boundaries of Virgin Islands National Park, most of the property inland from Maho Bay is privately owned. The most significant portion is a 441-acre private in-holding owned in 11 undivided shares. The National Park Service purchased three shares (equivalent to about 120 acres) a number of years ago and the Trust for Public Land (a non-profit land preservation organization) acquired an additional share (equivalent to 40 acres) in 2004. Heirs of the original owner retain the remaining seven shares.
This property is bordered by Maho beach to the west and encompasses virtually the entire basin as one looks inland, right up to Centerline Road, Mamey Peak and Ajax Peak. This beautiful and pristine area, rich in botanical wonders and historic treasures, appears to be parkland - but it is not, and is now facing a significant threat.
A developer is now attempting to purchase the remaining seven shares from the heirs to build an "institute," return a few acres to each of these heirs, develop a significant personal compound and develop additional land for residential home sites. He is insisting that the NPS and the Trust for Public Land cede their four shares to him and agree to a number of other demands. In return, he will designate an additional 80 acres as a conservation easement.
Any prospect of developing this spectacular area within the park is extremely distressing as it will destroy the integrity of the park by essentially dividing it in two, not to mention the severe negative impact it will have due to habitat destruction and increase erosion and sedimentation in one of the most beautiful bays within the park.
Concerning the developer's demands and conditions:
- The NPS is to cede their three shares to the developer in return for a conservation easement. Given the absence of legal standing for conservation easements in the Virgin Islands, it is only through ownership that the NPS can assure protection in perpetuity of any portion of the land.
- The developer is to be allowed to divert the North Shore Road inland and behind the wetland area and where he plans to build his "institute," and then create a parking area and a footpath to provide access to the beach. The developer is attempting to create a private beach, or at least as close to a private beach as is possible in the Virgin Islands, on a beach that has always enjoyed free and easy public access.
Maho Beach is, by far, the most accessible beach on the island, as one can easily be transported to within about 20 feet of the water; and the beach, as well as the near shore submerged land, is relatively flat there. The ease of access is a big part of what makes Maho so popular.
- The developer is to be allowed to build a private dock in Maho Bay. Besides the threat that this would create to seabed ecosystems in that part of the bay and to those swimming in the protected area, the beach and submerged lands at Maho Bay are owned outright by the NPS and should not come into play regarding negotiations on a neighboring property. Should the NPS agree to this part of the proposal, then every other person who has an in-holding along the shore would not, unreasonably, expect to be allowed to build their own dock and/or install their own mooring.
- The developer is to be allowed to clean and drain the wetlands area into Maho Bay. While the wetland area had previously been open to the bay, for the last 50 years or more it has served admirably as a natural sump and filter for sediment and debris coursing down the valley, effectively helping keep Maho Bay clean. The plan to open a permanent waterway, solely for the aesthetic reason of having a clean reflecting pond on the property will environmentally devastate Maho Bay, especially in light of the construction that will follow in surrounding areas,
Even without the above detailed conditions, the development that is planned for Maho will destroy the unparalleled beauty of the area; gone will be the unbroken canopy of green of the valley and hillsides, only to be replaced by villas, mansions and an "institute"; also gone will be the crystal clear waters and vibrant marine life of the bay, having been sullied and choked by the runoff and sediment from the spoiled hillsides.
Sadly, there may not be anything that we can do about it, as the developer is well within his rights to develop the property as he sees fit. And to be fair, his intention to somewhat limit development and put aside a portion of the land as a conservation easement is welcome.
However, we expect the national agency whose purpose is "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects [of national parks] ... by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations," to do what is right, and what is best to protect as much of this spectacular landscape as possible. I call on the NPS to actively reject these proposed conditions.
Whether or not you are a member of the Friends of V.I. National Park or a friend of the park in your own way, if you have enjoyed the Maho Bay area and want your children, grandchildren and all those who will follow to enjoy this spectacular treasure, now is the time to stand up and take notice. Whatever happens on those hillsides and that valley will impact us all: environmentally, culturally and socially, now and well into the future.
Joe Kessler, a St. John resident, is president of the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park.