Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley provides closing statements on the Crown Land Management Bill after the House of Assembly debated the bill for two meetings. (Screenshot: HOA)

The 2022 Commission of Inquiry report blasted the government’s handling of crown land and called for comprehensive reforms after finding evidence that “serious dishonesty” may have occurred in at least one land transfer.

Now the House of Assembly is acting on that advice.

The HOA is currently in the closed-door committee stage discussing a bill that aims to provide a transparent framework for the acquisition, management and disposal of crown lands in keeping with COI recommendations.

Among other measures, the Crown Lands Management Bill would 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 HOA meeting and during the following meeting last Thursday before legislators went into closed-door committee to discuss it privately.

The HOA is scheduled to return today at 1:30 p.m. to continue the committee session.

‘Long overdue’ reforms

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

“The disposal of crown land is another area where decisions are taken by ministers without any published criteria in relation to the assessment of applications: Assessments are made in the unfettered discretion of the minister, approved by Cabinet in their unfettered discretion,” COI Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom wrote in his final report. “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. Such a review is long overdue.”

Pursuant to a COI recommendation, a Crown Lands Distribution Policy Review was 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.”

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

The policy’s aims 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 HOA debate over the past week, 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.”

Opposition questions

But Opposition Leader Ronnie Skelton was not satisfied with Mr. Rymer’s promises.

Mr. Skelton said that when Mr. Rymer introduced the bill, he made it seem like ancestral lands in areas such as Anegada, Salt Island, Nottingham Estate and North Sound, Virgin Gorda were not forgotten. But Mr. Skelton said that there is “no mention of a special provision for them in this bill, [and] that’s something definitely we have to correct.”

In his closing statement during the debate last Thursday, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley acknowledged the need to implement such provisions.

“I certainly will not pass a bill which will disenfranchise the people of Anegada,” the premier said. “And let me say it clearly so my cousins in Anegada can hear it: I have heard your cries, and I’ve listened to your concerns. I’ve also heard the cries of those who are descendants from Salt Island [and] other places, and I recognise that the bill in its current form does not provide adequate protection for those individuals.”

Removing HOA powers

Mr. Skelton also expressed concern that the proposed bill would take power away from the HOA.

“There is no mention in this document, Madam Speaker, that this House is responsible for anything,” Mr. Skelton said. “Even the rates, fees and charges, you know: The House has no say in the matter. The House has no say in the formation of the board, and this can’t be a modern democracy that we are trying to develop.”

Under the bill, board members are to include eight directors appointed by the Cabinet under the recommendation of the minister, as well as the permanent secretary of the ministry responsible for crown lands or someone they designate; the financial secretary or someone they designate; and the chief planner or someone they designate.

Below market rates

In the COI report, Sir Gary also addressed the government’s practice of selling crown land below market rates, which he stated has sometimes resulted in “the issue of a belonger obtaining crown land at a heavily subsidised price (usually through an Estate Land Committee programme) and then making a windfall profit on an onward sale of that property (‘flipping’).”

Last Thursday, the premier weighed in on this topic as well.

“We have to have the ability to be able to make decisions in the best interest of our people, he said. “Those things are policy matters.”

Cabinet, he added, should determine the “type of rates you want to charge” for crown land — “whether a subsidised rate or whether you want to go to the full market rate.”