"Absentee landlords" is often the response to the first question, while probate problems and lack of funds are cited for the second. The Source spoke with Frederiksted community experts and pored over land records to try to bring some factual clarity to the issue.
"The sad fact is most of your undeveloped properties downtown are owned by some very prominent individuals who wont fix them," said Sen. James Weber III, when asked about the issue at a recent question-and-answer session hosted by the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce.
"Some may belong to members of the Chamber of Commerce or the St. Croix Hotel Association," Weber said. Often too, he said there are properties with six or more heirs who cannot agree on what to do with the real estate.
Properties passed on to multiple heirs without a will are a major part of the problem, according to those familiar with the situation. Asked recently about obstacles to renovating run down and derelict buildings, Deputy Tax Assessor Douglas Clark and longtime Frederiksted resident and civic activist George Flores both brought up probate and estate issues as important causes. During an extensive interview on the subject in October, Alphonso Franklin included probate issues among the reasons buildings remain derelict.
Franklin is a past president of Our Town Frederiksted, a community organization dedicated to the development and improvement of the town, and has a long record of civic involvement in Frederiksted. He provided a more complex explanation.
"The majority are owned by families of Virgin Islands natives who died or moved away to the States and have virtually abandoned their property," Franklin said.
He linked the issue to the devastation caused by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
"After Hugo destroyed so much of the infrastructure, some people who wanted to remain moved to the outer limits of town — out to Whim or La Grange," he said. "But many of the houses destroyed by hurricanes were left there and, the economy being what it was, people didn't have the finances to rebuild."
To top it off, after Hugo, cruise and freight arrivals in Frederiksted dwindled, and both businesses and people moved out of town, Franklin said.
A number of attempts have been made to restore properties, he said, and Franklin took pains to point out that Frederiksted has seen a great deal of renovation in just the past few years. But when attempts were made to encourage owners to renovate, probate issues became a factor, Franklin said.
"In some cases properties may be owned by 10 or 15 people," he said.
Often six or seven owners will agree on what to do with a property, but one or two either won't go along or sometimes can't be located, Franklin said. In a separate interview, Clark said the same.
The tax records appear to support those contentions. The Source went through Frederiksted, cataloging many of the buildings in disrepair and then sifting through tax records to determine who owns the most egregious properties.
Of 24 properties selected within the town of Frederiksted, eight listed stateside addresses for the recipients of the property-tax bills. Four listed unspecified multiple owners "and others" on the tax records. Three more had a primary owner, but another person was the recipient of the tax bill; often a sign, Clark said, of multiple owners.
Several of the properties belong to prominent citizens. Tax Assessor Roy Martin has a derelict house with a tree growing out of the porch at 18B Queen. Construction heir Addison Christian and his father, Alan, own several properties in town, one of which — 24 Prince Street — is the roofless ruin of a once distinguished and historic stone house. Sen. Ronald Russell owns an overgrown lot at 38AB Queen Street. Multiple calls and emails were made to these three and to other owners to get their perspective on the obstacles to renovation. Most did not respond to calls.
At the aforementioned town meeting with the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce, Russell spoke briefly about his own experience trying to renovate a Frederiksted property.
"I owned property in town and I wanted to develop it," he said. "The historic commission (State Historic Preservation Office) and I had a little difference of opinion, and the property is still undeveloped."
Russell's property in town appears to be a ruined foundation on an overgrown lot.
The senator went on to say he is optimistic because he believes Gov. John deJongh Jr. has begun to address the underlying issues affecting development. But he believes his story is instructive.
"The reason I give my example is I am sure other property owners have encountered the same frustration I have and have thrown up their hands, saying 'I'm not going to develop it,'" Russell said. "Nobody wants to have property just sitting there and not making money. … But if the historic commission never makes a decision or questions everything, it becomes burdensome."
Franklin also said regulation by the preservation office is a factor.
"As you know, the historic preservation commission will not allow owners to demolish buildings without their consent," Franklin said. "In a lot of cases, the wooden part of a structure may be completely gone, but no property owner can tear it down."
Franklin did not suggest owners should be able to tear down historic ruins, only that the regulations were an obstacle to rapid renovation. Restoring an 18th or 19th century brick-and-stone ruin in a historically accurate manner is a difficult and expensive proposition, he said.
Franklin said he favors forming and implementing a comprehensive town plan, which would include mandatory renovation and provide capital to help defray the costs.
"We could list the buildings in greatest need and make a recommendation to the governor," he said. "Some which don't meet certain minimum standards could be bought by the government, rebuilt, then maybe sell them back."
While pressuring owners to fix up their property may be helpful, Franklin said some owners don't have the resources, and nothing could happen without money.
"Capital is the bottom line," he said.
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