For the past several generations, the town of Charlotte Amalie has been the subject of various planning proposals and the accompanying critical discussions.
Airports, highways, under-harbor tunnels, waste-to-energy plants, urban pedestrian malls, marinas, shoreline extensions, parking garages and cruise ship expansion projects, etc., have all been proposed.
These proposals—all controversial—have been met with debate and resistance from concerned citizens and more often than not, have been rejected.
Moreover, every time some citizen applies for an individual zoning change to the law as it affects his or her individual property, one group or another voices their opposition. They frequently demand that the proposed change be denied or, at least, that it represents the absolute last time a zoning change is ever made.
Time after time we have heard an objector testify that “… there should be a law prohibiting any further zoning changes in the future….”
Well, the topic is back. We now have a few more zoning changes being proposed. But instead of changing the zoning of the property across the street from you, the proposed change will be to “update” the entire zoning code itself.
As a community, it is being proposed to us that we change the fundamental concept of how zoning is conceived, approached and implemented, at least as it relates to specified pilot areas.
Don’t get the impression that I object to this. I don’t.
I really would like to see something positive happen to facilitate sound planning policy here in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I want to see “good” change implemented – change that benefits the entire cross-section of our community, including the many visitors to our shores.
However, for change to be positive, we need to first know where we are going before we start trying to get there. We can never hope to achieve our goals, or hit our target, when those goals are not clearly stated ― much less agreed to ― and our target is unknown.
Recently, at a public hearing to discuss the proposed “Form-Based Zoning,” the hottest new trend in zoning, I raised this subject. I used one of my favorite metaphors to equate what is being done in the zoning/update process, to the planning of a proposed family vacation.
If you have ever planned such an event you would know that it’s not easy. Step one is to have the participating family members select (and agree to) a destination. There will be far-flung choices. Some in the group may want to visit Paris, some will prefer Rio, some Maui, etc. …Not easy.
And, if the family is like the broader V.I. community, on a tight budget with maxed out credit cards (and non-refundable tickets being the most economical way to travel) a destination must be selected, agreed upon and chosen before tickets are purchased and accommodation deposits made.
Otherwise, not only will the group fail to visit the destination of choice, but will lose their money as well in the process.
Similarly, zoning is a regulatory tool, a means to an end, a device used to achieve and attain a desired objective. If we, as a community, are to be even remotely confident of some form of success in this endeavor; we should first know what our goals and objectives are.
We should first describe the end product — our goals and objectives — before we select the tools to be used to build it with. We should not allow ourselves to be mired in the elegance of a specific tool or process or technique, including a specific type of zoning, if that device does not assist us in achieving our goal.
St. Thomas is one of the most diverse places imaginable. We have enormous racial, ethnic, religious, social, political, cultural, educational, economic, life-style and income-level diversity. In many ways this should be our greatest asset.
And it usually is. But sometimes, this diversity subdivides us, and sets us at cross purposes with each other. Then, it can become our greatest communal weakness. It can paralyze us, immobilize us and prevent us from ever moving forward.
We cannot afford to allow this to occur.
There is an opportunity to discuss these issues at the upcoming Planning Charrette to be held from Dec. 3–9. If we are to exist (or emerge) as a vibrant, cohesive community, with a significant role for all of our groups, we must know our needs, identify them and strive to attain them.
I hope that all sectors of our community will attend. I also hope that the Form Based Zoning experts contracted by DPNR will structure the Charrette so that the first and most important order of business will be to allow the community to express collective concerns, frustrations, joys, fears, goals and objectives.
Only once these have been heard, recorded, digested and thoroughly understood, can there begin to be a discussion of how to attain these goals — the actual planning. This will require understanding, insight, tolerance, cooperation, creativity and trust; and will not be easy.
I hope that the entire community will be represented and that we all express our collective visions of the future of St. Thomas.
With this information in hand and our needs established, the zoning experts can begin to craft the Zoning Updates. This process should establish community-based benchmarks against which we can measure the effectiveness of their proposals.
As a community we should each be able to identify the signs that inform us when we are getting close to our destination.
Robert deJongh, AIA/NCARB
President, The deJongh Group, PC
Architects and Planners
An architect/planner, Robert deJongh is a native Virgin Islander whose firm was established in the territory in 1973 with his wife/partner, Donna deJongh, AIA, NCARB. His firm has projects in all of the Virgin Islands and in several states on the U.S. Mainland.