The public has until Thursday, March 24, to send in comments about a request made by the Diocese of St. Thomas to change the zoning for a 2.84-acre property in Coral Bay on St. John.
The Catholic Church bought the property – Parcel 6R-2-c – several years ago with the intention of building a chapel named for St. Theresa, a community center, a nuns’ residence, and now a base of operations for Catholic Charities.
However, after the Diocese submitted plans to the Department of Planning and Natural Resources in 2021, church officials discovered that the property had been rezoned in 1987 from B-2 (Business Secondary) to C (Commercial).
Although a church may be built on a property zoned as Business Secondary, a church is not allowed on a property designated as Commercial.
The situation has become a cautionary tale for anyone who plans to buy property in the Virgin Islands.
The zoning change made 35 years ago was not reflected on the official survey maps for the territory, nor was it shown on Map Geo, the Virgin Islands’ Geographic Information System. A title search did not reveal the 1987 zoning change.
After the error was discovered, the church brought the issue to the Board of Land Use Appeals, which held a hearing on Jan. 21.
At that meeting, officials for Comprehensive and Coastal Zone Planning, under the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, explained that their office maintains a public database that lists all zoning changes; the spreadsheet for that database is available on their website under the heading “Publications.”
According to zoning officials, property buyers are advised that survey maps (maintained by the Department of Public Works) and Map Geo (under the office of the Lt. Governor) are not always current.
Although an attorney representing the Diocese of St. Thomas argued that Virgin Islands law requires “that zoning changes be recognized on zoning maps,” the Board of Land Use Appeals ruled against the Catholic Church.
The Board of Land Use Appeals recommended that the Diocese apply for a zoning change to restore the property they bought back to its original Business Secondary (B-2) designation.
For now, all the Catholic Church can do is allow the re-zoning process to move forward.
Following the 10-day public comment period, the DPNR commissioner will have 30 days to make his recommendation. If he agrees to restore the B-2 zoning designation, the matter will be brought before the Virgin Islands Legislature. If the Legislature votes in favor of the measure, the zoning change will be sent to the governor for his signature.
At a public meeting held online by Comprehensive and Coastal Zone Planning on Monday afternoon, Michael “Deacon Mike” Jackson Sr. presented the case on behalf of the Diocese of St. Thomas. No one from the public testified in favor or against the zoning change.
Jackson said the church planned to construct the four buildings over a five-year time period. The plan, drawn by Erin Lieb for Barefoot Design Group, LLC, calls for a maximum height of 44 feet for the structures and includes parking for 46 vehicles.
A survey of cultural resources completed by CocoSol International, Inc, of Orlando, Florida, in May 2021 showed the presence of a historic cattle dip, a grave, and pottery shards. Areas on the property found to have some historical and cultural significance will not be disturbed, Lieb said.
Currently, the only structures on the property are a container and a platform with an awning that the priest uses to conduct Mass on Sundays.
Anyone wishing to comment about the rezoning application, officially titled ZAJ-22-2, is asked to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by March 24.