Caneel Bay Update:  Friends VINP Position and DiGiacomo Filing

Caneel Bay Update: Friends VINP Position and DiGiacomo Filing

So….Here we are wrapping up the initial update on the current status of Caneel Bay.  Earlier this week, I typed up a broad synopsis of what’s been going on with the property since the storms from information in reports by the National Parks Traveler. Today, I’m going to give you a little update on a couple of on-island actions and perspectives.

I realized about a quarter way through interview number two this week that this is going to be a lot more than two parts.  So, you’ll be seeing plenty of Caneel Bay related info on News of St. John over the next few weeks.  There actually have been a few stirrings on St. John over the past month or two in regards to the fate of the property, but not by CBI Acquisitions or the Department of the Interior….

Many of you are likely familiar with Friends of Virgin Islands National Park (VINP).  This non-profit organization is responsible for many of the clean-up and conservation efforts in VI National Park on St. John.  Their mission is to work with NPS to “protect and preserve the natural and cultural resources of VINP, while connecting visitors to the park and the park to the community.”

On August 12, Friends of the Park Board Chair, Andy Rutnik and President, Todd Sampsell sent a letter to the Department of the Interior with the intent of finding a solution for the Caneel Bay property that:

  • “Recognizes the St. John and St. Thomas communities as a voice in the planning and negotiating for the future lease and/or concession agreements”
  • “And, as Laurance Rockefeller intended with the extinguishment of the RUE in 2023, that any negotiated lease or concession agreements provide the St. John community and visitors greater access to the property as part of our Virgin Islands National Park.”

The Friends’ position is clearly stated in the news release with the full letter attached that is available for public viewing.  (If you want to follow up on additional information from the documents referenced in this article, Friends VINP has links for all of them here.)

Their requests of the DOI are as follows:

  • Extinguishment of the Retained Use Estate (RUE) for CBIA’s failure to preserve and maintain the property.
  • Commencement of a new National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (reporting) process that will provide the St. John and larger Virgin Islands community with a voice in the future development and management of the Caneel Bay property.
  • Immediately resume full characterization of the environmental contamination of the property leading to a remediation plan that holds responsible parties accountable.

I had the opportunity to chat with Todd this week, to get a little clarification on the breakdown of these points.

Caneel Bay Update:  Friends VINP Position and DiGiacomo Filing 1
Todd Sampsell – President Friends VINP

Point number one—- The RUE was set up by Rockefeller in September of 1983 for a forty-year term.  Under the terms of the agreement CBIA is defaulting in multiple areas.  The big one, that is apparent with a naked eye, is the maintenance of the property.  The RUE outlines Rockefeller’s intent for this visitors of the park to enjoy the “outstanding scenic and other features” on the property.”

Caneel Bay Update:  Friends VINP Position and DiGiacomo Filing 2
Excerpt from Rockefeller’s RUE outlining maintenance responsibilities of the Holder of the RUE

The party standing as current “Holder” of the RUE (currently CBIA) is responsible for the maintenance.

  1. Be consistent with the preservation of such outstanding scenic and other features of national significance.
  2. Preserve the premises to the extent feasible in their natural condition for public benefit, enjoyment and inspiration.

“They clearly have not done that,” Todd stated.

There are several options on the table under negotiation at present.  All of which COULD include CBIA.

  • A 40-year noncompetitive lease: Under negotiation is a proposed 40-year lease. Essentially, this would look like a landlord (DOI/NPS) tenant (CBIA) situation.  Typically, these leases are bid on buy multiple contractors.  This is being extended exclusively to CBIA.
  • A competitive lease: Should the RUE expire in 2023 or be terminated by DOI due to noncompliance. DOI could offer a lease agreement with up to 60 year terms by competitive bid, .
  • A concessions agreement: These agreements are typically much shorter term and, generally, NPS would be paid on a percentage of sales.  Like in a lease, NPS owns and controls the property.  It could be an agreement with one large business or several small ones.

Todd is fearful of the outcome of the negotiations happening right now between the attorneys of CBIA and the DOI due to a lack of transparency or inclusion of local interests.

“They could possibly hammer out an agreement that could be very favorable to CBIA and not in the best interest of St. John or the park.”

He leans towards a lease situation with CBIA which has the possibility of continuing to hold them accountable for the cleanup.  With a shorter term concessions agreement, there’s no telling who will have to foot the bill.

Caneel Bay Update:  Friends VINP Position and DiGiacomo Filing 3
Caneel Bay Aerial Footage Post-Irma – Taken from Facebook September 2017

Phew…on to point number two and three…

I mentioned last week the environmental studies that were conducted in 2012 and 2014.  There was an additional third report that was started in 2016 and concluded in 2017.  These reports were ordered when legislation authorized the park service to negotiate a 40-year lease without going out to bid.  In order to take advantage of this, CBIA would have to give up the RUE.

“The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process begins when a federal agency develops a proposal to take a major federal action.” – from EPA.gov

These assessments and the corresponding reports are called for as part of the overall NEPA process.  This three step process (for Caneel) looked like this:

  • Phase 1 – 2012 – Environmental Assessment:  Corresponding environmental report research consisted of a walk through of the property pointing out problem areas.
  • Phase 2 – 2014 – Environmental Assessment: According to Todd, in their corresponding environmental report, the engineers found seven sites of contamination exceeding limits deemed by the EPA “safe for public health.”
  • Phase 3 – 2017 – Site Evaluation Report – This was the final report that called for full characterization and remediation planning.

I asked Todd to review my report prior to publishing, as a note, I wanted to include his comments on this portion:

“They do recommend full characterization of the contamination, ongoing monitoring and removal/remediation. None of that has occurred.”

To public knowledge, these further tests were never conducted.  Because, CBIA refused to allow federal contractors onto the property to complete the work.  Then, along came Irma.  And then Maria.  Heavy rainfall and earth shattering winds have likely worsened the impact of these chemicals that the engineers reported almost a decade ago.

Caneel Bay Update:  Friends VINP Position and DiGiacomo Filing 4
Caneel Bay Aerial Footage Post-Irma – Taken from Facebook September 2017

So, the second and third requests are for a new set of reports to reassess environmental impacts on the property that could be having long term, negative effects on, not only the reefs and fragile eco system, but also of the health of residents swimming in the seemingly safe waters.

Seven weeks later, the “Friends” have still not received a response from the DOI and Todd is fearful that their requests could be lost in the shuffle of the upcoming election.

Last month, a part-time STJ resident and resilient do-gooder lit a slightly larger fire in hopes of seeing some movement at Caneel Bay.  On September 22, David DiGiacomo sent a Notice of Intent to file suit to Gary Engle, managing partner of CBIA.  According to David, this notice gives Engle, or the EPA, 90 days to respond.

David has led other charges in defense of the betterment of Love City.  As a community organizer after the storms, he assisted the tenants of a low income housing property to organize and helped them defend their rights, with success.

Caneel Bay Update:  Friends VINP Position and DiGiacomo Filing 5
David DiGiacomo

“I want to be clear, that I have never been paid for these things” he said.  In regards to Caneel Bay, “I just want to ensure this most majestic site be treated the way it deserves.”

And he wants it done right.  “For the people of St. John.”

He has spoken with two former Caneel Bay employees in regards to the past state of the property.  One recalled seeing open barrels of DDT, a colorless, tasteless almost odorless chemical compound most generally used for insecticide. This particular compound was not even mentioned in the NEPA reports.

If this is the case and the compound remained on the property, the impact of Irma likely made the spread of this environmentally hazardous chemical significantly worse.

In addition to the chemicals, there was a 1000-gallon diesel spill that wasn’t fully cleaned up.  According to David, “There’s asbestos all over the place.”  Which, considering the similar cleanup Cinnamon Bay is in the midst of, I don’t find hard to believe.

All of these things, combined with the effects of the 2017 storms, could be creating hazardous conditions for both our residents AND our reefs.  Debris that has remained untouched for three years and the scattering of the contaminants previously identified by the NEPA studies both add insult to injury.

Concerns for the lack of cultural preservation on the property is also a huge motivating factor for David.  He feels Caneel should be proclaimed a World Heritage Site based on research pointing that there could be artifacts and historical sites dating back 3000 years.

He fears, based on research he has been conducting, that artifacts predating the Taino Indians and slave burial grounds may have already been destroyed.  With four different management companies since 1983 and little oversight from NPS, these could very well be the case.

Caneel Bay Update:  Friends VINP Position and DiGiacomo Filing 6
Caneel Bay Sugarmill Ruins Previous to Irma

His hopes with his NOI filing is that some action will be taken; quickly and properly.

“This needs to be (cleaned up) in accordance with the law,” he said.  “And with Rockefeller’s wishes.  Whoever operates it has to do so while protecting the environment”

If this filing gains traction and clean up does begin, his hopes for Caneel is that the RUE ends in 2023 as scheduled and that NPS keeps the property for the people to enjoy.  He pondered a museum, which the local community has been devoid of since the one at the library closed (its artifacts are currently being stored at the Battery).  Or maybe a Botanical garden with local vegetation?

“Talk to the people of St. John,” he said.  “What do the people want it to be?”

Todd’s sentiments were similar when I asked the same question…. “We don’t speak for the community.  But we hold their interests in high regard.  We want to see these natural and cultural resources honored and protected.  We want to see something that is contributing to the community of the Virgin Islands.”

Maybe these actions are a light on the horizon line for the future of the iconic resort that was once magnificently unique and the largest employer on St. John.  In the weeks to come, I’ll be continuing updates from the perspectives of some former employees, government officials and local community leaders.

This story is long with lots of valleys.  But, hopefully, there will one day be news of a somewhat happy ending.

In the meantime, if you would like to support the Friends’ efforts, please do so here!  OR, if you are a community member that would like to have your ideas considered for the follow up, please email [email protected]!  I would be glad to hear from everyone!

13 thoughts on “Caneel Bay Update: Friends VINP Position and DiGiacomo Filing”

  1. It’s time for St. John to reclaim Caneel for the people, not as an
    Enclave for the rich. Turn it into a campground like Cinnamon.

  2. Awesome reporting…great to hear some news about Caneel. Was a guest there many, many times over the years. Today, it would seem imperative to continue with some type of resort/concession on that peninsula to help the support island’s struggling economy…turning it into another hiking/botanical part of the park isn’t going to generate a lot of jobs for the service sector. There are already numerous other options in the existing park area to experience the island’s beauty so Caneel isn’t the only place. Give the NPS a chance to get some “rent” from the property. Put the concession out for bid!

  3. I think this was one of the best articles you have had since you took over. Great job on a complex issue. I believe Caneel was the largest employer on the island so I would hate to see the island not retain the resort in some fashion.
    Keep up the good work. And a special “Thank you” to the “Friends” organization and all those organizations that have worked so hard to bring the island back.

  4. What about the former guests of Caneel? Why don’t you ask some of them what they would like? Our family so enjoyed being at Caneel Bay each year for about 20 years. My daughter was married there. The employees were an extension of our family – Lincoln, Sam, Elvis, Carmen, Robert, Veronica, Sandra, Miles, Freddie, Deman, Roma, Novella, Jenny, Francine, Jessica and so many others were close friends rather than “staff”.

    Sure, we now have other options – Peter Island will open next year, Little Dix is open and there are plenty of Villa’s to rent in the BVI. However, there will never be another Caneel Bay where guests came from all over the world to enjoy the beauty of St. John.

    We have been to many many US National Parks and will never return to any of them. The management, the accommodations, and the horrible food are so predictably disgusting. You can turn Caneel Bay into another National Park and/or a play ground for the people of St. John – but if you want to attract visitors from all over the world you might want to begin listening to former guests.

    • To best of my knowledge there are no efforts to convert to A camping ground. To provide jobs and help the economy , what most of us would propose is to build an ultra luxury eco resort totally off the grid. eco resort meaning renewable energy, organic garden to plate food and beverage much as possible, rain water harvesting, etc etc, etc without compromising high end luxury touches to draw the high end clients who will spend money and provide employment. Another issue is environmental contamination on the grounds not being addressed . waste disposal, not being addressed etc etc. we need to bid out the agreement so a fair market value income would be generated . whoever rebuilds must also engage and support the local community .

  5. Thanks for the update, though it’s so sad. I swam over from Hawksnest in the fall of 2018, but there was so much debris in the water, I had to stop about 15 feet from the beach. I could also see shards of glass all over, glistening in the sun.

    However, I didn’t even think about all the chemicals that could have been in the water. Time to take it away from them!

  6. Caneel bay is an extraordinary property and should return to the glorious resort it was. Please people of the island insist on this whatever the cost before thisresort is beyond restoration,

  7. I second the idea of making it a place accessible to all with prices anyone can afford. It’s expensive enough to get to a remote place like St. John so it’ would be nice to have somewhat affordable accommodations so all can enjoy the site that belongs to the people of the United States

  8. My first visit to Caneel Bay was in January 1980, just after few months I moved from Milan Italy to New York. I spent 10 days there with my husband and my two children. The place was wonderfully kept, the only thing the rules were a little too much (men had to wear a jacket for dinner, you had to make a reservation in the morning and choose the restaurant you wanted to have dinner at, and the dress up code for the children was a little too much). It was not a relaxing place but still beautiful. Since then I come to St. John every year with the exception of this year, and even if I rent a house, the visit at Caneel Bay is a must. I was not able to go inside after the hurricane but I always stopped for few minutes outside. I strongly believe the place should be restored in a fashion to be affordable to more people, more upscale than Cinnamon Bay which its a wonderful place too.
    Caneel Bay gave employment to a lot of people from St. John and St. Thomas who did an incredible job.

  9. As long as we’re talking about Caneel…do you know whatever happened to the two ferry boats that were used to transfer guests between the Caneel dock and St. Thomas?

  10. I saw those 2 ferry boats in the ST John bay @Large Pond/Turner Bay-where you return with your marine boat to check in your customs/passports from BVI’s in St John bay late last year 2019 when I was visiting St John since the hurricane island destruction. I was shocked they were sitting there. We took the boat around Caneel and could not believe the current status/destroyed and no activity from our many years going there annually except a security guard at the shore – Turtle, Hawknest, Caneel, etc. I am not sure who owns them now.
    1. https://photos.google.com/direct/AF1QipPERLK1wFy8HF19ycvvw0AfSrI7JePKYTt87XuzbtfO0duDtDUCkpq4eDjX-T1JTA/photo/AF1QipMc1ke2UU_L03zWD6KzffDC3mQWX65AAUUsZU8y
    2. https://photos.google.com/direct/AF1QipPERLK1wFy8HF19ycvvw0AfSrI7JePKYTt87XuzbtfO0duDtDUCkpq4eDjX-T1JTA/photo/AF1QipOhIUtCSaZnZC5AANrYC_psLOcWKwu3NiFTeIAY

  11. I have been to Caneel every year consistently for many years
    The people at the resort were kind and wonderful to the guests
    I beautiful place that captured your heart
    The US needs to step up and help this island and the resort and the people of St John to give them a place to enjoy and take in the beauty and give them employment
    We are praying for them all and us to be able to go back and see God’s beauty
    Please step up and do something after all this time
    Unbelievable this is a property of the United States and it is still in ruin!!!!
    God bless and prayers!!!!

  12. I’ve been coming to St.John since 1982, stayed at Caneel many times and it remains my favorite place to stay. Celebrated our wedding there, too.
    Caneel should return as a resort, providing much needed financial support to the wonderful people of St. John who have been left high and dry by the current management group. The appalling way they have treated this beautiful property is a testimony to their greed – they don’t deserve one more minute as managers. They need to be held accountable for their willful neglect, forced to clean up their filth and kicked out for good. Bring in an environmentally friendly company who will bring Caneel back to it’s former glory.

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