Inspired by a recent article about a rezoning request at Bordeaux Mountain on St. John, I felt compelled to write an Op-ed to invite the community to take action to stop the land use and zoning disaster that has been going on in the Virgin Islands since 1972. We must appeal to DPNR, the VI Legislature, and Governor Bryan to commit to the urgently needed master planning process for the Virgin Islands.
DPNR currently uses a practice called spot zoning. Through the Legislature, they can approve property zoning variance requests for property owners who want to use their property for something different than what is allowed under its current zoning. These variance requests cause heated battles between property owners, their neighbors, the community, and senators. In some cases, owners that are granted rezoning do not actually build what they claimed, and instead, they sell the property with the new zoning. The new owner takes advantage and builds whatever they want that is allowed in that new zoning, but not necessarily what was promised by the previous owner. These types of occurrences add to the community’s frustration with the spot zoning practice.
Spot zoning is illegal in many places, so why do we have to deal with it in the Virgin Islands? The simple answer is because the Virgin Islands does not have a master planning process!
With the general election only a few weeks away I must point out that senators frequently lament dealing with zoning variance requests, claiming that DPNR should have fixed this a long time ago, and that it’s not fair for the senators to be forced to decide on these controversial zoning topics. However, to date, no senator has taken up this issue in earnest and made it a priority to press DPNR to fix the problem. Neither has any Governor made it a priority. I hope that the candidates for the 34th Legislature are paying attention and do not fall asleep under the coconut tree and dismiss the need to address this major issue and work with DPNR and the community to fix it.
In 2014, DPNR, then under the supervision of Commissioner Alicia Barnes, commissioned Duncan Associates/Rutgers Center for Planning Practice to draft the “Virgin Islands Development Code.” The Development Code was meant to establish regulations, standards, and procedures for the development of land, water, buildings, and structures in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The draft document went straight to a shelf to collect dust. VI government agencies have often spent time and money on studies, plans, and strategies that sit there unused, not implemented, and quickly forgotten about.
The executive branch has been working on several plans and strategies for the development of the territory. In 2018, CZM completed their Section 309 Assessment and Strategy for 2018-2021; VI EDA’s is working on a 20-year economic development plan; UVI is drafting a 5-year USVI Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) and a Tourism Master Plan (TMP); WAPA recently developed a Strategic Transformation Plan. All these plans talk about our future, but none deal with the land we all live on and the water that surrounds us.
There are ongoing projects and pending zoning variance requests, which despite the negative impact on neighborhood relationships, property values, on cultural identity, on the landscape, and on vernacular architecture, are moving forward. This situation will get worse as more businesses and buildings are located where they do not belong, like next to a school, within a residential area, or in a tourism district. The master plan process would address these and other issues. In the meantime, the Legislature and DPNR should issue a temporary zoning variance and rezoning moratorium and take this opportunity to deal with the problem now.
The Virgin Islands can learn from the bad experiences of places like Jakarta, an Asian island city that is paying the price of their improvised development practices combined with the risks and impacts of climate change. They are having to move the entire city further inland. Alternatively, the Virgin Islands can follow the steps of Hawaii and take concrete actions now by developing a master planning process. The master planning process brings it all together by figuring out the future land use, the layout of the different types of buildings, transportation projects, natural disaster resiliency, healing damaged land, plus social and environmental constraints.
The master planning process relies on community feedback and consensus to meet the needs of Virgin Islanders. The process consists of three steps: The Master Plan, the Zoning Plan, and most importantly the Zoning Ordinance. The Master Plan is a comprehensive policy document that will guide the development of the built environment, establish goals and objectives tied to a landscape regeneration framework, attract private sector investment, design the urban environment, distribute spaces and amenities, and balance the different uses. The second step is to amend the current Zoning Plan to match the Master Plan. The third and most important step is the development, implementation, and enforcement of Zoning Ordinances which will regulate proper land use; building design, location, size, density, plot loading, spacing; and land uses allowed in a zoning district. The enforcement mechanisms can be tied to business licenses, property taxes, and GIS platforms for expedient and accurate processing.
The benefits of enforcing a cohesive and comprehensive Zoning Ordinance include: attracting private investment, removing the need for zoning amendments, facilitating faster and more transparent building permitting, fostering a better tourism product, and ultimately making development in the Virgin Islands healthier for everyone.
The Virgin Islands cannot continue being developed in a haphazard way, where it is business as usual and variances are issued for requests without much regard for the negative long-term effects. It is time to respect our land and water resources by managing the development responsibly and agree to the master planning process!
Editor’s note: Miguel Quiñones, P.E., is a resident of St. Thomas who cares passionately about the islands and wants to see a better and more sustainable development of the territory.