During a zoning hearing before the Committee of the Whole on Tuesday, multiple members of the 31st Legislature expressed worries that the V.I. Port Authority is sending mixed messages to its Bournefield tenants by moving forward on industrial rezoning plans without a firm timeline for when residents must vacate the VIPA-owned housing.
Multiple attempts to evict residents of VIPA’s housing properties in Bournefield over the last several years have met with controversy and fizzled. In 2011 VIPA backpedaled on a mass-eviction of Bournefield that the authority said was necessary due to health and safety hazards related to the age of the community’s housing units, which were built in the 1940s.
The authority’s current position is that no one is being forced to leave Bournefield while their tenancy is in good standing, although VIPA is moving ahead with the demolition of units as they become vacant.
In the meantime VIPA is advancing plans to develop its Bournefield property for what it has always intended it for: industrial and commercial uses related to the Cyril E. King airport.
At Tuesday’s hearing, VIPA Executive Director Carlton Dowe presented VIPA’s rezoning application for its Bournefield property, which has received the endorsement of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources. The application requests that the property, which contains occupied residences, be rezoned from medium density residential to heavy industry.
Dowe said the reason for the rezoning is that VIPA wants to replace its airport maintenance building, which he said is in derelict condition and a safety hazard for Port Authority employees, with a new facility across the street.
This will not displace the vast majority of Bournefield residents, Dowe said. Only one occupied residence is adjacent to the proposed site of the new facility and VIPA has worked successfully to relocate the resident.
However, Dowe said, there are also eventual plans to develop warehouses on the Bournefield property, but these were not in the immediate future.
Sen. Tregenza Roach said that the lack of a clear end date for VIPA’s tenants on the property, who pay their rent on a month-to-month basis, creates an “up-in-the-air situation.”
“I think what is confusing in regard to the residential situation is your statement that you don’t intend to evict anybody while they are in good standing,” said Roach.
“The two things don’t match for me,” he continued. “Either you’re going to move the tenants out and develop the property consistent with a heavy industrial zoning or you are going to continue having a situation with the residents there demanding that you do this or that, whatever the case may be, inconsistent with the role of the Port Authority.”
Dowe said the Port Authority’s decision not to evict anyone is an attempt to do the “humane” thing for its tenants, who include a number of senior citizens.
“I believe most people in this body would take big issue with the Port Authority if we were to say, the 30 of you who are on our property, just leave,” Dowe said.
Despite not issuing any evictions, Dowe said VIPA has made it “abundantly clear” that it wants Bournefield residents to relocate. He said there are currently five empty units ready for demolition.
The Port Authority is currently in talks with the V.I. Housing Authority to develop a new housing community on VIPA-owned land north of the University of the Virgin Islands. Part of the agreement between VIHA and VIPA is that units in the new development be reserved for Bournefield residents who wish to relocate there and who meet federal requirements.
Sens. Terrence “Positive” Nelson and Almando “Rocky” Liburd both echoed Roach in their concerns that VIPA appears to have a long-term development plan for Bournefield but no way to get rid of tenants as long as they pay their rent on time.
Liburd said, “I’m a little bit puzzled with the discussion around the houses because what you are saying is that as soon as somebody leaves you demolish one, but it could be a long, long time before someone leaves. Something isn’t right about that to me.”
Dowe repeated that VIPA has a moral obligation not to “kick people out on the street,” although he also noted that due to the lack of any qualifications on who can live in Bournefield’s low-rent housing, the community has seen high-income individuals, and those who own their own residences elsewhere on-island, on its tenant list.
Dowe stated clearly that the Port Authority wants to get out of the housing business, something it never was intended to be involved in the first place.
Senate President Neville James applauded this direction, saying that VIPA being responsible for residential units is fundamentally wrong and nonsensical.
“The Port Authority shouldn’t be in the business of managing homes. They should be in the business of leasing properties that are associated with port activities,” he said.
The only nongovernment official to testify at the hearing was Bournefield resident and community activist Josephine Lindquist, who contended that VIPA was not being upfront about its true plans for its Bournefield property.
Lindquist said that some community members felt they had been treated with hostility and given “vague answers” when they questioned VIPA officials about the future of Bournefield.
“We can only surmise that the intention is to place petroleum storage or a large transport business like Tropical Shipping on the property,” she said.
VIPA was also confronted by another community member, although not a tenant of VIPA, at the rezoning application’s previous hearing before the Department of Planning and Natural Resources on Feb. 8. The resident asked VIPA to conduct an impact study on how its plans would affect nearby property values. VIPA agreed to conduct the study, but has not yet done so.
Dowe said VIPA has no reason not to follow through with the impact study, but that it is likely to conclude that property values will not be affected, since there is already nearby industrial and commercial activity.
“All one has to do is just walk in the area. Just go to the area. There is nothing we would be doing there that would impact what’s happening there as we speak today,” said Dowe.
At the hearing senators also heard a rezoning application for 2.75 undeveloped acres surrounded by airport facilities where PG Fuel Inc. has signed a lease with VIPA to develop a 2 million gallon fuel storage facility. The property is adjacent to another fuel storage facility operated by Total Petroleum.
In addition to Dowe, testifiers included VIPA’s director of property management, Denise Mills; director of engineering, Dale Gregory; DPNR Commissioner Dawn Henry; and owner of PG Fuel, Allie Petrus.
Present were James, Liburd, Roach, Nelson, Sens. Jean Forde, Myron Jackson, Kurt Vialet, Justin Harrigan Sr., Sammuel Sanes and Clifford Graham.