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Residents Pack the House to Discuss Land Use Plan

Oct. 1, 2004 – St. Thomas residents turned out in force Thursday night to share their views on the Comprehensive Land and Water Use Plan, and many had grave concerns.
Attorney Maria Tankensen Hodge said she had found 83 flaws in the nearly 300-page document. Jeyan Stout, president of the St. Thomas Board of Realtors, said the organization will not support the bill in its current form. Nick Bailey, a principal at John Foster Real Estate, questioned the amount of time spent evaluating the economic and social impact of the plan which, he pointed out, would "rezone every single property in the territory in one fell swoop." And that's just for starters.
Thursday night's town hall-style meeting, held at Chase Auditorium on the University of the Virgin Islands campus, was the fourth in a series of five such meetings called for by Sen. Louis Hill, chairman of the Senate Planning and Environmental Protection Committee. So far two meetings have been held on St. Croix and two on St. Thomas, with the fifth to be held on St. John.
Hill, who is making good on a 2002 campaign promise to revive the plan, said Thursday it will "bring some direction to a hodge-podge approach to development" which is currently the norm. But he also cautioned that the process of producing a "perfect plan" is going to take time and deliberate effort, and that in the end "not everybody will be pleased."
The birth of the current draft legislation came in 1970 when the V.I. Planning Office, which has since become the Department of Natural Resources, was mandated to create a comprehensive plan for the protected development of the territory's land and marine resources. The mandate was renewed in 1987, and over the years the plan has been reworked several times, but has never been made law.
Marjorie Emanuel, director of comprehensive planning at DPNR, provided a brief summary of the revised plan at the start of the meeting. According to Emanuel, the new plan will take the territory from a two-tiered to a one-tiered system where the same set of rules will apply to all construction. The new plan also details what those rules will be, how they will be enforced and what the review process will be.
Emanuel explained the new plan is based on a "mixed use, town-center" approach less rigid than the current zoning laws. It is also designed to incorporate cultural elements in long-term planning. In the new plan the territory's existing 18-zone system will be replaced by seven land and five water intensity districts, with clearly defined rules for development within each district.
A panel of DPNR department heads took notes and answered questions throughout the four-hour session in an auditorium filled beyond capacity. And while virtually everyone present agreed on the need for a comprehensive plan to guide the territory's development, there was strong disagreement on the details.
Wanda Mills, who holds a doctorate in urban planning and says she contributed to an earlier incarnation of the plan, is concerned there is not enough attention to aesthetic concerns in the new plan. She named Shibui as an example of visually sensitive development and wants to see a plan that further addresses the "visual impact of the built environment." She said if she had her way the plan would include regulations for exterior color and architectural design.
Hodge spoke up for the territory's less wealthy residents when she addressed a provision of the plan that would bar new construction on parcels smaller than one acre. "The average V.I. family who dreams of owning a home can't find a quarter-acre for less than $30,000. How will they afford a whole acre?" she wondered.
Hodge also pointed out the plan allows for mixed development within each zone. This means, she explained, that in Land District II, zoned low density and comprising around 20 percent of the St. Thomas land mass, "retail development is a matter of right." Hodge raised the specter of 7-Elevens and gas stations popping up in traditionally residential neighborhoods.
Another concerned citizen with developed property in Sugar Estate wanted to know what will happen to his five-story building if the plan becomes law. His building exceeds the maximum height of 45 feet set forth in the document, making it illegal under the new guidelines.
Fortunately, attorney Jennifer Rodriguez, DPNR's legal counsel, was there. "The building will be non-compliant," she explained, but that doesn't mean a person in such a situation would be penalized.
Nick Bailey, who said he's been involved in St. Thomas real estate long enough to have encountered the plan in the 80s and 90s, didn't see much difference in his reading of the current plan. "This plan was rejected two times already," he said, wanting to know from Hill and the DPNR why it should be approved now. He then suggested the bill be tabled until after the November elections.
Hill responded vehemently, saying, "We will not table this bill. This will not gather dust for another 20 years."
During her testimony, Stout said that the Realtors board is committed to supporting a comprehensive plan, "just not this one." She doesn't think enough time has been put into its development and objects to her view that the current plan is substantially the same as it's always been and called for a new plan altogether.
Hill seemed pleased throughout the meeting and eager to hear the concerns of his constituents. And though he is clearly passionate about seeing a comprehensive plan become law, his most constant refrain was that it cannot be rushed. "We will take the time to make it good," he said.
The final meeting during this round of public input on the plan will take place at at 6 p.m., Oct. 5, in the St. John Legislative Hall on St. John.
You can access the Comprehensive Land and Water Use Plan here.
To view the maps, click here.
Note: These files are very large and could take several minutes to download.
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