In one of the best examples of one government department not knowing what the other one is doing, 183.1 acres of land in Coral Bay, St. John, slated for a territorial park could go to a developer when the Lieutenant Governor’s Office puts it up for auction Jan. 25 and 26.
The property is one of 15 on St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John that have property taxes 10 or more years in arrears. A similar auction will be held on St. Croix Jan. 18 and 19.
The property in question is part of the Egbert Marsh Trust, and is the site of the former Estate Carolina plantation located in Coral Bay’s Carolina valley. The trust owes the local government $294,656 in back taxes and penalties, recently published legal notices indicate.
Marilyn Chakroff at the V.I. Agriculture Department has been working for several years to get the property included in the federal Forest Legacy funding program that helps states and territory’s purchase land with ecological value to keep it out of the hands of developers.
She was stunned to learn from a reporter that the property is on the auction block.
“It’s alarming,” she said.
Getting federal funding for the property is a long and complicated process. Chakroff said the Egbert Marsh Trust property was designated as the second highest priority for acquisition by the territory. The first was land in northwest St. Croix.
Chakroff outlined the sequence of events that began in 2005, when the Agriculture Department got $500,000 from the Forest Legacy Program. Another $500,000 followed in 2006, with $500,000 in 2008, and $1.5 million in 2010. The 2005 and 2006 money is being applied to purchase St. Croix property, which involves assessments, offers, and acceptances still in progress.
“While doing St. Croix, we were moving forward for the property in Coral Bay,” Chakroff said.
Three years ago, she submitted a proposal for the Marsh property. The selling price was $12 million, which Chakroff said was unrealistic.
The process involves getting on what is called the President’s List, which then goes to the U.S. Congress for funding approval. Chakroff said the Marsh property didn’t even make the President’s list the first time round because the Agriculture Department hadn’t spent the money it already had.
However, she said she’s heard that an application submitted in the fall of 2011 will make the President’s list, but also said the official word won’t be out until the end of January or early February. Even if it’s on the President’s List, there’s no guarantee it will be high enough to get funded before the money runs out.
“It’s sort of a crap shoot,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Conservation Fund, an organization similar to the Trust for Public Land, appraised the property at $9 million, she added, and it’s likely the Conservation Fund would broker the deal between the Egbert Marsh Trust and the Forest Legacy Program.
Chakroff applied to the Forest Legacy Program for a $6.75 million grant, which would have to be locally matched. The local matching money was appropriated thanks to $3.5 million for land acquisition and $500,000 to the V.I. Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation to hire consultants to design the park, build trails and boardwalks, and to preserve archeological resources.
The bill was signed into law, and Chakroff said she understands the money will be available until 2014.
Sen. Craig Barshinger sponsored the bill, but he has said he’s not sure if the money is still there because he asked for an accounting in October 2011, and hasn’t received a reply from the government.
While the tax auction could be an opportunity for the local government to purchase the property for a park using Forest Legacy Program funding, Chakroff said the program can’t move that fast and it also can’t bid on properties.
St. Thomas attorney Kevin Weatherbee, who represents one of the Egbert Marsh Trust beneficiaries, Sheldon Marsh, said he’s working to resolve the issues with the local government.
“I was promised it would not be on the list,” he said, referring to the list of properties to be auctioned off in January.
While the 183.1 acres contains some hillside property likely desirable by developers, most of it is flat.
“There is so little flat land. We were planning all kinds of trails for handicapped folks, nature trails, and a talking trail. It’s a long-term project,” Chakroff said.
Barshinger said that the more Coral Bay grows, the more the green space provided by the territorial park will be valued.
“We’ll have the equivalent of New York’s Central Park,” he said.
Sharon Coldren, president of the Coral Bay Community Council, said this large parcel of land is important for historical conservation purposes because it contains the ruins of the Carolina plantation and for natural resource conservation because a big gut runs right through it.
“And it has steep slopes that never should be built on,” Coldren said.
Additionally, some “high and dry and flat” areas could be used to improve the infrastructure of fast-growing Coral Bay, she said. She listed a place for solid waste, an administration office, and a police building as facilities needed in Coral Bay.