Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley moves for the third reading of the Crown Land Management Bill 2024 on Monday in the House of Assembly. (Screenshot: HOA)

After six days in closed-door committee, the House of Assembly passed a law on Monday that aims to provide a transparent framework for the acquisition, management and disposal of crown lands in keeping with reform recommendations from the Commission of Inquiry.

The new version of the Crown Land Management Bill 2024 — which now awaits approval from the governor — has yet to be Gazetted, and lawmakers did not discuss it publicly before unanimously voting it through.

But the originally Gazetted draft proposed to establish an independent board responsible for monitoring the enforcement of crown land legislation and recommending how Cabinet should distribute land grants and other disposals.

“Land ownership holds great significance to most people, and by enhancing the management of public lands, we endeavour to facilitate sustainable development across residential, commercial and agricultural sectors,” then-acting premier Kye Rymer said when introducing the bill for its second reading on May 28. “Our objective is not only to spur economic growth but also to safeguard our environment and promote social stability. Furthermore, this bill places a heightened responsibility on our government to judicially manage our public infrastructure. Those would include, at times, roads and sidewalks.”

The bill was publicly debated during the May 28 and May 30 HOA meetings before legislators went into closed-door committee to discuss it privately.

‘Long overdue’ reforms

The bill is part of the fulfillment of recommendations from the COI, which strongly criticised a lack of transparency surrounding crown land processes.

COI Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom wrote in his final report in 2022 that decisions about the disposal of crown land were typically made by government ministers at their “unfettered discretion” in the absence of published criteria.

“Under pressure from successive governors (who have consistently expressed concern about the lack of proper process for these disposals), the ministry is now reviewing the framework, mechanisms and overall governance with a view to bringing the management of crown land within a statutory framework,” Sir Gary wrote. “Such a review is long overdue.”

Pursuant to a COI recommendation, a Crown Lands Distribution Policy Review was subsequently carried out by Virgin Islands attorney David Abednego under the direction of then-governor John Rankin and published in January 2023.

Mr. Abednego’s report recommended that crown land legislation be amended to include various provisions: “a requirement for government to create a Virgin Islands Strategic Plan setting out a vision and priority for crown land;” “management principles touching on best use of resources, fiscal prudence, conservation, and environmental protection, etc.;” and “criteria that guarantees that crown land is disposed and managed in a consistent, fair and transparent manner.”

VI Crown Land Policy

The Virgin Islands Crown Land Policy, which outlines the framework for the sustainable management and development of crown lands, was subsequently approved by Cabinet and published in January of this year.

It was later amended in February and re-published.

The policy’s goals include ensuring that adequate and suitable crown land is available for government’s use; facilitating critical infrastructural development; facilitating disposal of crown land to eligible Virgin Islanders; managing crown land development; and strategically acquiring lands when needed.

During the public HOA debate in the May 28 and May 30 sittings, the management of ancestral lands emerged as one of the most contentious aspects of the proposed bill.

In his initial statement, Mr. Rymer highlighted Clause 19 in the proposed bill, which calls for the formation of an ad hoc advisory panel and committee to handle disposal of crown lands on Anegada; Salt Island; North Sound, Virgin Gorda; and Cooper Island.

“Since the first reading of this bill, we have conducted extensive consultation within the communities, including the Constitutional Review Committee, the Anegada Lands Committee, Salt Islanders and others,” Mr. Rymer said. “We value their input and are committed to carefully analysing all comments received. When necessary, we will incorporate their suggestions into the bill to ensure that the rights and privileges of Virgin Islanders are preserved.”