Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Devin Carrington said Friday that his department does not support a bill that would put a two-year moratorium on new gas station licenses.
The moratorium, sponsored by Sen. Sammuel Sanes, was designed to address what some lawmakers see as an over-proliferation of businesses of that type, but the bill (No. 32-0133,) failed to move out of committee following Carrington’s testimony at a hearing of the 32nd Legislature’s Committee on Government Affairs, Veterans, Energy and Environmental Protection.
Sens. Myron Jackson and Janelle Sarauw had attached their names to the bill as co-sponsors.
In addition to a moratorium, the bill proposes an annually-reviewed limit on operating gas stations in the territory. Sanes said the legislation is a response to “gas stations popping up like mushrooms after a rain” on St. Croix, sometimes within a few minutes drive of each other.
Senators from the St. Thomas-St. John district agreed that an excess of gas stations is a problem, particularly when their location near residential neighborhoods poses risks to health and safety.
“The population is decreasing but the population of gas stations in increasing. Something is wrong with this picture,” said Sanes.
Carrington said that he understood that a proliferation of gas stations comes with risks to community welfare and safety, but that addressing the problem via a change to zoning laws would be more effective and appropriate than a moratorium.
Among the reasons DLCA does not support a moratorium, Carrington said, is that an increase in independent gas stations has accompanied a decline and stabilization of gas prices in the territory, to the advantage of consumers.
“Any business activity that spurs economic growth must be fostered and encouraged,” he said.
Carrington suggested the Legislature attempt a regulation of gas stations by setting limits on the distance allowed between residences and fuel tanks. There is already legislation in place that does the same for schools, churches and some other establishments, but the only residences covered by current law are retirement homes.
Carrington also expressed concern that the bill as written would open up the V.I. Government to lawsuits for “uncompensated regulatory taking,” in which regulations are alleged to be onerous to the point of restricting the use of property without any compensation. He noted, though, that a similar moratorium on licenses for taverns in Charlotte Amalie, Frederiksted and Christiansted was not challenged during its implementation from 2006 to 2011.
Jackson, who said his family once owned one of the earliest gas stations in Charlotte Amalie, was in firm agreement with the bill’s purpose. He said the adoption of a comprehensive land and water use plan would be the ultimate solution, but in its absence, smaller pieces of legislation must get the job done.
“It is time to revisit the issue of gas stations on our landscape, especially on my island district,” Jackson said. “We have six gas stations in less than a mile. Six. In residential communities, next to schools. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
All committee members present – Sens. Sanes, Marvin Blyden, Jean Forde, Alicia “Chucky” Hansen, and Tregenza Roach – ultimately voted to hold Bill No. 32-0133 until the call of the chairman. Sens. Janette Millin Young and Nereida Rivera O’Reilly were absent. Non-committee members Jackson and Brian Smith were also present.
The Committee on Government Affairs, Veterans, Energy and Environmental Protection also voted unanimously to hold two other bills until the call of the chairman.
The first, Bill No. 32-0131, seeks to amend the competitive bidding process of the V.I. Water and Power Authority to give V.I. suppliers priority over suppliers outside the territory. WAPA would be authorized to give priority to local companies as long as the cost does not exceed 15 percent of the cost for the same materials or services purchased elsewhere.
Testimony from WAPA’s chief administrative officer Rupert Pelle, indicated that the authority believes the bill can be improved in two ways: first, by clarifying what is meant by a “Virgin Islands supplier,” a term that could have several meanings and has no definition in the V.I. Code; and second, by lowering the 15 percent figure, which could have an unintentional negative impact on WAPA’s budgeting process.
Sens. Sanes, Blyden, Forde, Hansen, and Roach all voted to hold the bill.
The final bill considered by the committee at Friday’s hearing was Bill No. 32-0037, co-sponsored by Sens. Jackson and Forde. That bill seeks to allow the V.I. Government the discretion to implement “flextime” for employees, or allow them to choose flexible starting and finishing times within limits.
That bill was held following a motion by Forde because none of the testifiers on the issue were physically present to answer questions, although Director of Personnel Milton Potter did deliver written testimony in support of the bill.