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Senate Basement Bill Needs Work, Planning Says

The “basement” bill, now working its way through the Senate, needs plenty of work before it should become law, Stuart Smith, director of Comprehensive and Coastal Zone Planning at the Planning and Natural Resources Department, said at a meeting Thursday.

“The more we thought about it, the more holes we found,” Smith said.

The meeting was called by the Island Green Building Society and held at Nazareth Lutheran Church Hall. About a dozen people, many of them architects, attended.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Carlton Dowe and Sen. Louis P. Hill, permits enclosure of vacant space, typically under houses, to be used for apartments. Many such apartments already exist across the territory illegally, and the bill would require them to meet building code requirements, such as parking, septic and sewer provisions, and would allow amnesty with no fines.

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“But if you know you could never be in compliance, or it would cost too much, you’re never going to do it,” Smith said.

In response to a question from those at the meeting, he said if buildings were found to pose an immediate danger, the department would take action.

The bill has its roots in a move to inventory all the territory’s buildings, so the government would know where people were in case of a disaster like an earthquake.

Smith suggested that the senators plan to vote on the bill at an upcoming session. It has already made it through the Planning and Environmental Protection and Rules Committees.

However, Smith sees the final vote as premature.

“We need more time, and even if you don’t give us more time, it has to go through the public review process,” Smith said.

The bill would also create problems with the current zoning code. A zoning code revision is currently underway, but should the bill become law, it would increase the cost paid to consultants to mesh the basement provision with the revised zoning code. Smith also said the bill addresses the concerns of those who think that the revamped zoning code will never pass the Legislature.

St. John architect Rob Crane said that the bill penalizes those who designed or built homes without leaving space for an apartment underneath because the current law doesn’t allow for such apartments.

Although the bill appears to be legally deficient, Sen. Craig Barshinger pointed out that it was approved by the Legislature’s chief legal counsel.

“It’s going to end up on a judge’s desk,” one man predicted.

Barshinger said he had a bill in the hopper requested by the Green Building Association that would limit the number of stories on St. John buildings to only three.

“After seeing Sirenusa, 90 percent of St. Johnians would say they agree,” Barshinger said, referring to the bankrupt and unfinished condominium project that looms over Cruz Bay.

After Smith said it would be difficult to apply separate regulations to each island, Barshinger said that a comprehensive survey of St. John residents could be done to get an accurate picture of what St. John wants.

Sen. Janette Millin Young also attended the meeting.

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The “basement” bill, now working its way through the Senate, needs plenty of work before it should become law, Stuart Smith, director of Comprehensive and Coastal Zone Planning at the Planning and Natural Resources Department, said at a meeting Thursday.

“The more we thought about it, the more holes we found,” Smith said.

The meeting was called by the Island Green Building Society and held at Nazareth Lutheran Church Hall. About a dozen people, many of them architects, attended.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Carlton Dowe and Sen. Louis P. Hill, permits enclosure of vacant space, typically under houses, to be used for apartments. Many such apartments already exist across the territory illegally, and the bill would require them to meet building code requirements, such as parking, septic and sewer provisions, and would allow amnesty with no fines.

“But if you know you could never be in compliance, or it would cost too much, you’re never going to do it,” Smith said.

In response to a question from those at the meeting, he said if buildings were found to pose an immediate danger, the department would take action.

The bill has its roots in a move to inventory all the territory’s buildings, so the government would know where people were in case of a disaster like an earthquake.

Smith suggested that the senators plan to vote on the bill at an upcoming session. It has already made it through the Planning and Environmental Protection and Rules Committees.

However, Smith sees the final vote as premature.

“We need more time, and even if you don’t give us more time, it has to go through the public review process,” Smith said.

The bill would also create problems with the current zoning code. A zoning code revision is currently underway, but should the bill become law, it would increase the cost paid to consultants to mesh the basement provision with the revised zoning code. Smith also said the bill addresses the concerns of those who think that the revamped zoning code will never pass the Legislature.

St. John architect Rob Crane said that the bill penalizes those who designed or built homes without leaving space for an apartment underneath because the current law doesn’t allow for such apartments.

Although the bill appears to be legally deficient, Sen. Craig Barshinger pointed out that it was approved by the Legislature’s chief legal counsel.

“It’s going to end up on a judge’s desk,” one man predicted.

Barshinger said he had a bill in the hopper requested by the Green Building Association that would limit the number of stories on St. John buildings to only three.

“After seeing Sirenusa, 90 percent of St. Johnians would say they agree,” Barshinger said, referring to the bankrupt and unfinished condominium project that looms over Cruz Bay.

After Smith said it would be difficult to apply separate regulations to each island, Barshinger said that a comprehensive survey of St. John residents could be done to get an accurate picture of what St. John wants.

Sen. Janette Millin Young also attended the meeting.