After three years of public engagement, the National Park Service announced its decision to move forward on the plan to reconstruct a resort at Caneel Bay to replace the iconic hotel that was largely destroyed by Hurricane Irma in 2017.
The announcement was made Friday morning in a document called a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI).
“The NPS has carefully reviewed and taken into consideration the high volume of public comments received over the course of three years in shaping the preferred alternative,” said Mark Foust, NPS Southeast Regional director.
“NPS heard and incorporated the need for ensuring greater public access, promoting a National Park Service experience, protecting the special resources at Caneel, and strengthening the local economy with high-quality jobs,” Foust continued. “We look forward to creating the best possible future for Caneel Bay and the people of St. John and the Virgin Islands.”
In January 2023, the NPS narrowed the choices for what to do with the 150-acre property on St. John’s north shore to two options.
The Park Service has essentially chosen Option B (“to re-establish resort-style services for overnight use”) over Option A (“to minimally restore the site to allow for safe access by visitors through existing roads and trails, including safe access to beaches”).
“We think we’ll be able to provide a good balance between more or less development,” said Nigel Fields, the outgoing superintendent of the Virgin Islands National Park.
The plan now calls for the construction of an environmentally sustainable resort with up to 166 overnight units, the same number that was available at the Caneel Bay Resort before it closed because of storm damage.
The area established for the proposed resort includes 67 acres, with an additional seven acres reserved as a maintenance area.
A conservation area of 78 acres – including the beach at Caneel Hawksnest and Turtle Point – will be set aside to preserve natural resources and archaeological features. The public will have access to these areas by trails.
Five acres, including the main beach at Caneel Bay and Honeymoon Bay, have been designated for recreation/day use. Amenities will include public bathrooms/shower facilities, picnic areas/tables, food services by concessioner, non-motorized equipment rentals, and water activities.
Eleven acres have been established as an interpretation area where visitors will be encouraged to learn about the site’s archaic, colonial, and post-emancipation-era features. (The sugar mill ruins are located in this section).
The Park Service will establish a contact center in this section and has signed an agreement to work with the V.I. State Historic Preservation Office to preserve cultural and historic features throughout the 150-acre site.
Two other areas, including those used in the past for water catchment and landfill, will remain as a flexible development zone of seven acres.
Fields said the Park Service will be considering partnerships to establish a museum, heritage center, farmers market, garden, or amphitheater in the public access areas.
In addition, “To address housing shortages on St. John, the NPS will work with the developer to consider the need for additional employee housing and, if appropriate, will incorporate such housing into the developer’s redevelopment plans,” according to the decision document.
The resort is still under the control of CBIA/EHI LLC, the entity that has held the lease for the property under a Retained Use Agreement established in 1983. That agreement is set to expire on September 30.
What happens on Oct. 1 is still unclear as CBIA/EHI has filed an ownership claim to the property. The case is scheduled to be heard in District Court in mid-October.
In the meantime, the Park Service is focusing on remediating the areas that were deemed contaminated after a two-year investigation.
A request for bids to remove asbestos will be issued by August, according to Fields, and a contractor will be selected by September; soil contamination removal is expected to begin in October or November and continue into 2024.
Fields said the Park Service will soon send out a request for qualifications for developers “who have the resources and the know-how” to construct an ecologically sustainable resort “in this type of environment.”
According to the FONSI (development document), “Developers/operators will be selected through a competitive commercial services process by the NPS and an ability to meet the [environmental] sustainability goals will be considered during evaluations.”
In addition, “commercial operations at the Caneel Bay area will be expected to contribute to the local economy of St. John by developing careers and providing local business opportunities. As part of any commercial operation at the site, the NPS will specify that developers/operators provide opportunities for local businesses and community engagement.”
The document continues, “Examples include a commitment to fair wages and employment for the residents of the US Virgin Islands; partnerships with local organizations, such as the University of the Virgin Islands for candidates in the hospitality and tourism management degree program; and opportunities for local artists and vendors to sell local goods at the site.”
The FONSI document includes a 36-page Public Comment Involvement Response Report that summarizes more than one thousand comments received during the decision-making period and the NPS’s responses to those comments.
Although some commenters have called for the resort to be rebuilt as a luxury destination, the Park Service has not yet determined if this will be the case.
“The nature and type of overnight accommodations was not considered in this programmatic analysis,” the report states. “The NPS has made no determinations on the types of overnight accommodations that would be available at the site (i.e., more primitive experience versus more luxurious) and these determinations would be made at a later date in coordination with potential developers following additional analysis.”
Furthermore, “Public access areas would be negotiated and coordinated in any future potential redevelopment proposals with a developer/operator, as described in the Environmental Assessment (page 13). The NPS identified several additional opportunities within the EA that will be implemented with additional beach access and conservations zones,” according to the report.