St. John Land Conservancy Gears Up for New Preservation Efforts

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With a new board and several new land donations in process, the St. John Land Conservancy (SJLC) is working hard to help preserve additional St. John property for conservation purposes and for use by the public.

SJLC was originally established in 2011 to protect 3.6 acres of land near Haulover on the East End. At that time, many people wrongly assumed that the land at Haulover was part of the Virgin Islands National Park and thus protected from development.

When signs were posted at Haulover advertising the sale of the property — which was popular with snorkelers and those who sought to get away from crowds — residents became alarmed.

The Haulover property included beachfront land on Round Bay, part of Coral Bay, and woodlands and wetlands across the road all way to the stone beach at Dreekets Bay on the north shore. With R-2 zoning, developers could have constructed up to 28 condominium units.

Fortunately Raf Muilenburg, a partner in Morrisette and Muilenburg LLC, Attorneys at Law, had developed a professional relationship with the property owner, Family Properties Caribbean LLC. Muilenburg had been raised on St. John aboard his parents’ boat Breath and had moved back to the island in 2009 to practice law.

Family Properties Caribbean (FPC) had listed the sale price for the land at $1.9 million, but FPC principal David Prevo, a conservationist at heart, spoke to Muilenburg about finding a way to protect the land from development.

Although he was unable to afford a direct donation, Prevo was willing to sell the land for conservation for $800,000, the price he had paid for the property ten years earlier plus property taxes and other costs incurred.

The Virgin Island National Park, working with the trust for Public Land, had already committed all available funds to preserving the Maho Bay Watershed and couldn’t afford to take on another project at that time, so Muilenburg sought another solution.

Eventually Muilenburg and his wife Thia joined up with long-time residents Lauren and George Mercadante, Athena Swartley, and others to establish a land trust called the St. John Land Conservancy. They were able to raise enough money through donations to purchase the Haulover property and hold it until it could be donated to the National Park several years later. In the process, others in the St. John community have expressed their willingness to assist financially with future land purchases.

With its newly expanded board and officers, including Muilenburg and his wife Thia, naturalist Gary Ray, Realtor Marty Beechler, David Prevo, Mary Vargo, Matt Crafts and Kelly Larkin, the St. John Land Conservancy is now continuing its mission to preserve natural and historic properties and maintain them for public recreational use.

Its website, www.stjohnlandconservancy.org, lists numerous ways that property owners can transfer their land to the conservancy while receiving significant tax benefits and even (when desired) maintaining the option to continue using the property for a certain period.

“There’s a great need for a local land trust,” said Muilenburg who now serves as the organization’s president. “We provide a local alternative to the Park for land conservation, and we can preserve small parcels and land outside the Park boundaries that the Park cannot.”

By law, the Virgin Islands National Park boundaries are established by Congress, Muilenburg explained.

Even if someone wanted to donate land to the park, that person would not be able to unless the land was already within the park boundaries, or an extension was granted by Congress, which can be a lengthy process.

The St. John Land Conservancy is currently working on acquiring additional land through donations of certain St. John properties that they hope will be realized in the near future.

“We are getting close to completion of a donation of land on the east end of Lovango Cay in a particularly beautiful spot, along with a couple of other pending donations in the Coral Bay area,” said Muilenburg. “Further details should be available for publication very soon.”

The SJLC welcomes community support through donation of conservation property, funds or volunteer work and other services, and asks that community members stay tuned for further announcements and opportunities to support the cause of land conservation on St. John.