Sept. 24, 2004 The reasons a Comprehensive Land and Water Use Plan has been almost 20 years in the making for the Virgin Islands were evident at a hearing in Christiansted Wednesday night. Speaker after speaker agreed the government needed a long-term plan, but few agreed on what exactly it should say.
Attorney J.H. Isherwood said the "zoning down" of huge parcels of land would cause his client to lose the value of his land, land he had acquired by working hard, land he planned to pass onto his family. He said his client's land could lose two-thirds of its value as the plan was drawn up. He said that what the government was proposing was the same as going into a man's bank account and taking half the funds. Isherwood said it had been a St. Croix tradition to buy land as an investment.
Attorney Gerald T. Groner had the exactly opposite take on the situation. He said the plan would make development in Conservation Areas too easy. He said where zoning presently required two acres for a home, the plan would call only for one acre.
Groner's discussion demonstrated the still-formative nature of the plan. Many of the 100 residents, gathered in the American Legion Hall on Hospital Street, apparently had been reading a different version of the plan than was in the hands of the officials at the hearing. There were different versions of what acreage was required for what development. Sen. Usie Richards directed residents to the Costal Zone Management site at CZM for the latest version of the plan.
Richards is the prime sponsor of the measure – Bill No. 25-0209. Sen. Louis P. Hill, chairman of the committee on Planning and Environmental Protection, hosted the forum. Representatives of the Planning and Natural Resources Department stood ready to answer questions. Sens. Emmett Hansen III and Ronald Russell also attended
Dean C. Plaskett, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, gave an overview of the plan at the beginning of the meeting. He said the plan was based on what was called in the 80s "the town-centered principle" and is now called "smart growth." It would allow for mixed use (residential and commercial) in certain areas. Plaskett said the goal was to stop urban sprawl. However, a couple of speakers did not agree with that assessment.
Lorine Williams, a representative of the island's Realtor association, said the plan would allow for "hodge-podge" development and "would encourage sprawl."
Exchanges between residents and senators were generally cordial although attorney Todd Newman referred to tenseness in the room because residents were concerned how the "down zoning" in the plan would affect their property values.
The only sharp exchange came when Steve Nisky, in his remarks, said the V.I. government was the worst polluter on the island and that it was doing nothing to clean up the island. He advocated less restraint on how people developed their land.
Plaskett responded saying Nisky's comments were "flat out false." He said the government has been doing quite a bit to clean up the island in recent years. He added, "If you want to talk about the largest polluter, you should look at the 'Big Guy' on the south shore."
Plaskett also took exceptions to Nisky's comment that nothing much has changed in the 18 years since the plan was first conceived. Nisky said, "Some lines have moved; the colors have gotten brighter."
Richards and Plaskett said the plan had changed significantly.
In his overview Plaskett said the plan turns the current two-tier, 18-zone system into seven land districts and five water districts governed by a single set of rules. The new plan provides more flexibility for development.
Another change would be that there would be different criteria for determining whether a project must go through a major or minor permit process.
Although Plaskett and other officials tried to reassure residents those small projects would not have to go through major permit processes, residents did not seem reassured. One wondered out loud whether "adding a bedroom will be a major ordeal?"
If the plan, V.I. Development Law Bill, becomes law, it will supercede the existing zoning, subdivision, earth change, billboard, antiquities and cultural properties and coastal management law.
This has Bob White, who told the committee he once served as assistant mayor of a city of 100,000 and was a member of its planning board, worried. He said it might be wiser for the Virgin Islands to just adopt a Planned Unit Development section to its current zoning regulations.
Another concern expressed by residents was whether the Coastal Management Commission would have the resources to be able to take over the new responsibilities under the bill.
Plaskett said it would. He said the commission now has 22 employees and the governor has approved the hiring of five more.
The number of residents turning up at the Christiansted meeting was almost three times the number that turned up at a similar meeting in Frederiksted earlier in the week. St. Thomas and St. John residents will have their say at upcoming 6 p.m. meetings on the following dates:
— Sept. 28 at Bertha C. Boschulte School auditorium, St. Thomas.
— Sept. 30 at the UVI Chase Auditorium, St. Thomas.
— Oct. 5 at the Legislature Building in Cruz Bay, St. John.
For further information about the plan in its current state, see "Land and Water Use Plan to Make the Rounds Again".
You can access the Comprehensive Land and Water Use Plan here.
To view the maps, click here.
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