The sight of condos will never mar the landscape of Haulover Bay thanks to one woman’s desire to give back to the island which has been a part of her life for decades.
Since falling in love with St. John during family vacations as a teenager, Lauren Mercadante introduced her own husband and children to the island.
The family purchased a home in the Coral Bay area and spend a large portion of the year on Love City. While Mercadante has long volunteered for Friends of V.I. National Park doing trail maintenance and as a docent at Annaberg Sugar Mill, this winter she made an impact on the island which will be appreciated for generations.
Although she didn’t plan on creating a conservation trust during her winter months on St. John, after reading about the possible fate of pristine Haulover Bay on the island’s East End — which was on the market with a motivated seller — in St. John Tradewinds, Mercadante formed the
St. John Land Conservancy and purchased more than three acres of property on the isthmus, saving it forever from development.
“I wasn’t planning on this, but we had talked about doing something of this sort for St. John,” said Mercadante. “I assumed wrongly that this niche was taken and I didn’t want to tread on anyone’s toes. But we had talked about doing something to give back to St. John, which we love so much and is such a huge part of my life and my kids’ lives.”
“When I read the article, I was surprised that Haulover was for sale,” she said. “I read the story and that is what started this. I called Raf Muilenburg and we got the ball rolling.”
Attorney Rafael Muilenburg, of Morrisette and Muilenburg, represented the owner of the property, Family Properties Caribbean (FPC) LLC, and its principal David Prevo. FPC was looking into a variety of options for the 3.6 acres of land spread over four parcels, one of which was applying for a Group Dwelling permit to realize the “highest and best use of the land,” Muilenburg previously told St. John Tradewinds.
Possible development for the undisturbed land included up to 28 condominium units on both sides of the narrow Haulover isthmus, which abuts V.I. National Park property. South Haulover beach on Round Bay and North Haulover on Dreekets Bay were both potential sites for condo units.
The developer was, however, open to selling the land to a conservation trust at a reduced price, Muilenburg previously explained.
“David [Prevo] is a longtime fan of the Park, and is intrigued about the benefits for FPC’s nearby development at Dreekets Bay of dedicating this piece as conservation property,” Muilenburg previously said. “As such, FPC would be willing to sell it for conservation at the amount they paid for it about 10 years ago, plus property taxes and other costs incurred, approximately $800,000 total, which is half or less of the likely market price.”
Thanks to Mercadante, that is exactly what happened. She contacted Muilenburg in February and the two immediately set to work creating the non-profit conservation trust St. John Land Conservancy.
“I expected to come down and work for Jeff Chabot again doing trail maintenance,” said Mercadante. “I did not expect to be running to Raf’s office and running to government offices, but when this came up we said, ‘We have to jump on this.’”
The process of incorporating the trust went surprisingly smoothly, Mercadante added.
“Everything happened just right,” she said. “The whole process was surprisingly smooth and easy. Raf was wonderful to work with and the V.I. Government was great.”
“It was like this was meant to be,” said Mercadante. “It’s been a joy.”
Mercadante is president of the board of St. John Land Conservancy with Muilenburg the secretary and George Mercadante treasurer. The group is fully incorporated and working on its website, which should be complete soon. Both Mercadante and Muilenburg celebrated the group’s achievement last week.
“I’m so happy to have been able to do this,” said Mercadante. “When people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you,’ it makes me realize that I am doing something good.”
“I am thrilled,” said Muilenburg. “I am so excited that a property that is so unique and has so much history and resources is going to be saved forever from development. I am speechless.”
The group’s impact is sure to be felt far from East End. Having saved Haulover from development was only St. John Land Conservancy’s first project, according to Mercadante.
“This is just the first project,” she said. “We hope to talk to land owners about their land and how we can help through conservation easements or any alternative ways. We’ll work with land owners in any possible way to keep the land from being developed so people can use it and access it and enjoy it just the way it’s always been.”
“What I am particularly excited about is that St. John Land Conservancy has been formed and will be able to do other things on St. John where there is a development threat to property that is really in need of conserving,” said Muilenburg. “There is really a lot of potential support for something like this.”
The group is hoping to attract support from the St. John community, both financially and through volunteers.
“I really feel that St. John needs to preserve the land and the open space that it has and that is being over built,” said Mercadante. “A lot of these places we all enjoy are disappearing before our eyes and something needs to be done. Everyone needs to be involved in this, it’s not just about me.”
“I really hope to have the entire community behind this effort either through volunteering or donating,” she said. “I feel like everyone I know on St. John feels the same way that I do and I think this is really going to take on a life of its own.”
Donations of any kind are welcome by St. John Land Conservancy, Muilenburg added.
“We are open to anything people can offer — any amount of financial donations or volunteer hours,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback and we’re really excited about the upwelling of support from the community.”
To find out more about St. John Land Conservancy and how to help the group call Mercadante at 252-774-0792. The group’s website is still under construction, but should be complete soon.