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Realtors' Expert Finds Fault With Land Use Plan

Oct. 26, 2004 – The St. Thomas Board of Realtors' annual meeting Tuesday was dedicated to analysis and discussion of the recently revived Comprehensive Land and Water Use Plan. At times it looked like a tug-of-war between differing views of development in the territory and at other times it seemed like a pep-rally.
The organization, worried that a plan mandated more than 30 years ago may suddenly be dropped on the islands, brought in a national expert, attorney Brian Blaesser, to evaluate and discuss the plan.
April Newland, chairwoman of the Realtor Board's legislative committee, characterized the effort as an attempt to keep the territory from "making the same mistakes that others have made."
For starters, Blaesser said what the territory has at present is not a plan at all.
Standing before a room full of realtors and government officials – including a group from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources largely responsible for the recently revised Comprehensive Plan – Blaesser said of the nearly-300 page document, "I respectfully say this is not a plan, it is a regulation."
Blaesser is a partner at Robinson & Cole, a Boston law firm specializing in land and water use practice. The firm is on retainer by the National Association of Realtors. The firm has analyzed plans for communities all across America, including Hawaii, Maryland, Florida and Norfolk. According to Newland, the firm has had the V.I. Comprehensive Plan for several months.
Blaesser praised many aspects of the draft legislation, and acknowledged it contained a strong sense of policy, but he was critical of several points. Prominent deficiencies in the plan, according to Blaesser, are the broad discretionary powers given to the DPNR commissioner, the lack of clearly defined development standards, and that the plan leaves many crucial points to be "worked out later."
On the first point he suggested the degree of control the document vests in the DPNR chief "amounts to legislative power, which violates federal law."
He said things left to be "worked out later" include fundamentals like a plan for adequate public facilities and a capital improvement program that would pave the way for smart development.
Another observation Blaesser returned to time and again during his presentation was that the entire document is predicated upon data and analysis from the early 90s. He pointed out that none of the basic assumptions made in the "regulation" – things like population density and growth projections – have been updated in light of the 2000 census. He questioned whether it was sound to leave this "time gap" in place.
Blaesser pointed to a number other absences. He said the plan contains no provisions that would induce developers to build affordable housing. And despite much talk by proponents of the legislation's "town centered, mixed-use approach," Blaesser observed that the document fails to define either term or provide meaningful design guidelines or regulations that would produce a "town centered" result.
Blaesser urged that these missing details be included in the plan, making frequent reference to his work in Hawaii and other jurisdictions where such issues were included at the planning stage, and successfully executed over time.
After Blaesser's presentation the meeting became an open forum where things began to heat up.
Keith Richards, special assistant to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull on capital projects, took to the podium and addressed Blaesser before a grumbling crowd, "Many of your suggestions are too complex for us right now. If we included the kinds of details you're suggesting, we would never have a plan."
Richards' suggestion was to "do this now and make adjustments as we go along."
Attorney Maria Tankensen Hodge, speaking on behalf of the V.I. Bar Association, took exception to Richards' approach. Drawing chuckles from the people around her, she said, "The plan is not like a baby that just arrives and you either love it or you don't. Can we agree that the plan should be open for review?"
Richards also picked up on the issue of affordable housing, saying the territory already has the Affordable Housing Law of 1990 that has done little in the way of getting units built.
Blaesser suggested giving developers a menu of incentives to encourage them to build affordable housing as part of more profitable endeavors. "Offer developers relief on some of the variables that affect their bottom line," he said. Richards said this had been tried as well but that developers often will simply go to the Legislature to obtain a spot zoning that absolves them of any need to negotiate.
Sen. Louis P. Hill's address to the crowd turned the conference room of the Palms Court Harborview Hotel into a scene out of a high school pep-rally for a few brief moments. And for those few moments it became clear how strong the community's wish for smarter development has become.
Hill, the loudest voice in the senate for the bill in recent months, asked for a show of hands in support of a comprehensive plan. Almost all hands went up.
"Ninety-nine percent of you want a plan. Can we achieve that," he almost shouted.
"Yes," came the resounding reply.
"Can we fix this document and make it better," Hill called out.
"Yes," the audience responded again.
In thanking Hill for his efforts on behalf of the bill, Newland announced that during a conference call between local realtors and Blaesser the day before, a decision had been made. The Realtor Board will seek funding to bring Blaesser into the process of creating a more palatable plan for the Virgin Islands.
Newland said later the National Association of Realtors provides matching funds up to 50 percent for communities seeking the planning assistance of Robinson & Cole. So far NAR has paid the bill run up by the firm's evaluation of the V.I. plan.
Despite the appearance of overwhelming support for a plan and the hopeful tone at Tuesday's meeting, one thing remains certain, only time will tell if it will ever see the light of day as law.
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