Ancestral St. Johnians Speak Out on Future of Development (Part 3)


[Many thanks to Michael O’Neal (Slavery, Smallholding and Tourism) for bringing this item to our attention.] This is the third in a three-part series by Amy H. Roberts on St. Johnians’ views on the future of development on their home island and their thoughts on marina developments and environmental preservation in Coral Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.

This is the third in a three-part series on St. Johnians’ views on the future of development on their home island. The first two installments in the series focused on St. Johnians’ thoughts on infrastructure improvement and environmental preservation in Coral Bay – where two large marina developments have been proposed – and on economic opportunities that could come with a marina development. In the third and final part of this series, St. Johnians reflect on long-standing land ownership and cultural preservation issues on St. John and how they relate to proposed developments.

St. Johnians Reflect on the Reality of Property Ownership

The majority of land surrounding the harbor in Coral Bay is owned by 14 property owners, most of whom are from families who have owned their land for generations, according to data gathered by the Coral Bay Community Council. This would suggest that there are many opportunities for St. Johnians to move forward on business enterprises, but community activist Theodora Moorehead says, “No matter how you look at it, there are obstacles on all sides. You have to have a lot of intestinal fortitude. The people who get things done have money and influence.”

“Our government gives big hotels Economic Development Commission benefits,” she said, but sufficient opportunities for local people don’t trickle down. “When you go to hotels and start at the top, who do you see? Caribbean people? Not usually. The Caribbean people supervise laundry, housekeeping, maybe the bar.”

“EDC programs privilege investors from outside the territory instead of mom-and-pop shops that have been the backbone of the island here,” said Hadiya Sewer, a St. Johnian who received her doctorate in Africana studies from Brown University and now is a research fellow at Stanford University.

For the situation to change, “It has to be a conscious effort,” said Moorehead. “The Small Business Administration would have to get involved. Bank requirements would need to change. We’d need to call meetings for Caribbean people who want to do business. St. Johnians are in the minority. We have to think of ourselves as Caribbean people and include the children of immigrants who are invested in the island. It’s a long process.”

“We need a political will that allows us to prioritize the vulnerable people of the Virgin Islands,” said Sewer. She sees the possibility of local people “addressing political status and pooling their resources to collectively fund development by and for ancestral populations.” Moorehead said, “I’d like to see indigenous people getting the money to do whatever business they do,” then added, “The banks have not been forthcoming.” For many St. Johnians, their wealth is tied up in undivided land, “and banks don’t loan money for that.”

Families are tasked with dividing up land among 50 or 60 people through two or three generations, Moorehead continued, and “Probating is costly. Then there’s a danger, “the minute it’s divided, it would get sold. Kids who moved abroad don’t have a sense of the importance of land.”

Moriah Jacobs said the complexities of dividing land among multiple heirs has led to long, drawn-out court proceedings; these frustrating delays sometimes result in tension between ancestral St. Johnians and cash-ready continentals who arrive on the island looking to buy property. “A lot of St. Johnians are struggling because we’re still in probate. We see others move down, build their homes and it increases tension. We ask, ‘What about us?’”

The influx of continentals has resulted in the construction of hundreds of upscale villas on St. John. This trend toward gentrification has led to rising property values and, in some cases alarming increases in property tax bills. Ancestral St. Johnians sometimes find it necessary to sell some of their land to pay property taxes or keep up with the rising cost of living.

[. . .] Moorehead, who owns a residence with a spacious backyard in the heart of Cruz Bay, said, “Our property taxes are sky high. I’m trying to keep my place as it was, but I’m screwed if I want to keep it because the property is being assessed based on what’s going on around me.”

Moorehead blames the government for capitalizing on the high property values on St. John. “Our government is aiding and abetting this; they’re using our property values on the bond market and contributing to our dispossession. I don’t mind paying [taxes based on] the value of my property, but I don’t think that should be based on the value of my neighbors’ [properties]. St. John is so small, how can we escape our multimillion-dollar neighbors?”

The high property taxes force St. Johnians who own commercial properties to raise rents to the point where local people, especially those starting new businesses, can’t afford to lease space. Moorehead said the majority of buildings in Cruz Bay are still owned by ancestral St. Johnians, but the businesses within these buildings are largely owned by continentals.

The pattern of development in Cruz Bay does not necessarily have to be replicated in Coral Bay, according to several St. Johnians. “Coral Bay hasn’t had the same level of luxury tourism dominance,” said Sewer.

[. . .]  “My father said, ‘Land is heritage,’” said Moorehead, whose father, Sen. Theovald “Mooie” Moorehead, led a successful fight to prevent the federal government from seizing land owned by St. Johnians to expand the boundaries of the Virgin Islands National Park in the 1950s.

The struggle is well documented in the 2019 film “Our Island, Our Home.” This political battle, which began with the efforts by Laurance Rockefeller and others to establish the park (and the iconic Caneel Bay Resort within its borders) still resonates among the population of St. Johnians whose families go back for generations.

As documented in the film, in 1958, two years after the opening of the park and the resort, Sen. Moorehead wrote, “We can no longer believe that we, the people of St. John, are considered of any importance … and we no longer believe much of what we’re told by Laurance Rockefeller. We believe that 750 Virgin Islanders do matter. We like tourists, but we will not sacrifice ourselves to make this a happy place for tourists. What we want is a happy island for everyone, including ourselves. It is not headed that way.” [. . .]

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