Speaking Friday at the Rotary Club of St. John, Trust for Public Land area director John Garrison said that a complicated land swap involving the Trust, the National Park Service and the local government is dead. The deal was to give St. John a combined elementary and high school and St. Croix a national park facility honoring the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.
The school was to be built on about 10 acres of land at Catherineberg, St. John now owned by V.I. National Park. The deal had the Trust for Public Land buying 115 acres of land outside Christiansted, St. Croix, at Estate Grange for the National Park Service to ultimately turn into the Alexander Hamilton national park facility. If the deal was concluded, the Trust planned to turn the St. Croix land over to the local government, which was to swap all but 40 acres to be used for farms for the land at Catherineberg.
“Now the Trust for Public Land will acquire the property in conjunction with the St. Croix Landmarks Society,” Garrison said after the Rotary’s weekly meeting at the Westin Resort and Villas.
He said St. Croix Landmarks Society will run the Estate Grange site as a museum and library.
Joel Tutein, superintendent of all national parks on St. Croix, said he didn’t think it was a done deal with the St. Croix Landmarks Society and that the Park Service was still reviewing options. He said he wasn’t at liberty to disclose those options.
Delegate to Congress Donna M. Christensen said the deal fell through because the National Park Service didn’t feel the Estate Grange property had enough significance.
Tutein said that a study couldn’t link Alexander Hamilton with the Estate Grange property. “But it’s an important piece of property because it has cultural resources on it,” he said.
According to Garrison, the Estate Grange property includes a 5,000-square-foot greathouse made of coral blocks that is filled with Hamilton-era furniture.
The fate of the combined elementary and high school at Catherineberg remains up in the air. While the Estate Grange land swap is dead, Christensen said that a deal is in the works to exchange local government-owned land at Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve for the Catherineberg land as part of the development of a marine research center at Salt River.
Garrison was tight-lipped about why the land swap deal fell apart, but Sen. Craig Barshinger said the Education Department failed to come up with a plan for a school that included kindergarten through grade 12.
The park occupies about two-thirds of St. John’s 20 square miles and land outside the park boundaries is in short supply.
St. John public elementary school students attend Guy Benjamin School in Coral Bay or Julius E. Sprauve School in Cruz Bay. Both schools are old and Sprauve also sits in a noisy and congested area.
St. John public high school students attend Eudora Kean High School on St. Thomas. Barshinger said St. John needs the school because of gang friction between Kean students who live in the Smith Bay area of St. Thomas and those on St. John.
“St. John students fear for their lives,” he said.
The news that the St. John school appears in limbo didn’t sit well with two St. John parents who worked hard to get the school to happen. Neither Kristen Cox nor Lorelei Monsanto were proponents of the land swap deal, but both want a school.
“I’m very disappointed,” Cox said.
Cox said she believes the deed to the land at Catherineberg, which was donated by the Bishop family to the park, allows for a school or other public buildings to be built on the property.
Monsanto said she didn’t favor the land swap because she knew it wouldn’t happen. But it still leaves us without a school. We’re back to square one,” she said.
Christensen said she’s very aware that many St. John residents don’t want a land swap but she said that is the only way to get land for the school because of park laws.
“I have exhausted every other possibility,” Christensen said.
She said that the most important thing is to get a school for St. John and a place the community can use.
St. John Administrator Leona Smith agreed that St. John definitely needs a school.
“The high school should include vocational studies as well,” she said.
Calls to Education Department spokesman Ananta Pancham, the St. Croix Landmarks Society and Government House spokesman Jean Greaux went unreturned.