A regular Source feature, Undercurrents slips below the surface of Virgin Islands daily routines and assumptions to explore in greater depth the beauty, the mystery, the murky and the disregarded familiar. It is our bid to get to know the community more deeply.
Just 20 years ago, “Villa Orient” was a charming home with tray ceilings, wooden flooring and generous windows with wooden hurricane shutters that opened onto a patio and yard filled with oleander, frangipani and bougainvillea. Standing on Beltjen Road near the intersection of Lover’s Lane (Alton Adams Drive) and the Waterfront, it was a reminder of a bygone era when that area marked the eastern edge of town and the start of “country” on St. Thomas. The upper portion of the building purportedly dated to the late 1700s. Its vaulted ceiling was probably the reason why the Danish West Indian Company, its former owner, had dubbed that section “the Chapel.”
Today, thick brush – heavily clotted with trash – obscures the structure from the street. Virtually abandoned in the 1990s, a few years after WICO sold it to a nearby business, the building became home to vagrants and drug addicts, police say, and, they believe it was one of them who accidentally set it on fire one night several years ago. It’s been standing there, a burnt-out hulk, ever since. A padlocked fence surrounds the property and it’s hard to tell just how much of the building is left and whether anything is salvageable.
Villa Orient’s story is hardly unique. St. Thomas Realtor April Newland can tell you many tales of historic buildings in the territory that have fallen from grace and turned from picturesque symbols of history to modern-day eyesores.
She’s made it her mission to rescue them. Or, if not rescue, then to demolish them.
This is her second try at getting legislation passed to give property owners help in renovating their buildings through tax subsidies and grants, and to fine them if they fail to do so. The Antiquities Preservation and Historic Properties Act, proposed by Sen. Luis Hill, will be the subject of a public hearing on August 1 and Newland is coming prepared with facts, figures, photos and a petition in favor of the bill.
A similar measure died in the Rules Committee about a year ago. Newland blames its failure in part on the misperception that it was somehow a move by elitists, and/or outsiders, to gobble up properties that had been in Virgin Islands families for generations.
“The primary goal is to have people keep their property,” Newland said, but also to keep it up. “We’re saying, ‘Please do something with your building.’”
There are “an astounding number of abandoned buildings” in the Virgin Islands, she said. A survey conducted by students from the University of the Virgin Islands, and funded through the National Association of Realtors, found 131 such properties on St. Thomas alone. The numbers for St. Croix and St. John were even higher. The unpaid taxes on these properties total more than $10 million.
Derelict properties are a drain on the tax base and the economy in general, contribute to vagrancy and crime, devalue neighboring homes and businesses, create health and safety hazards, and increase the risk of fire, she said.
All of those issues are ones she believes resonant with a cross-section of V.I. residents. Together with Kerstin McConnell, president of the Virgin Islands Territorial Association of Realtors, and Belton Jennings, the chief executive officer of VITAR, as well as others, Newland is mounting a campaign to raise awareness and build support throughout the community. “We don’t want this to be just a Realtor initiative,” she said.
The bill relies on an arm of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, the V.I. Historic Preservation Commission, to enforce its provisions.
It requires a DPNR inspection of historic properties to see whether they are being properly maintained, and imposes fines if they are not. The penalties may be as much as $300 per day for residential properties and up to $1,000 a day for nonresidential properties. Inspections may be triggered by a request from an owner of an adjoining property, by a petition of 10 citizens, or from within the commission.
When an owner is cited, he is also given information about financial assistance for improving historic properties. If he can show cause for not renovating a building – including financial hardship – he has the option of removing it.
The bill establishes an Archeological Preservation Fund for government grants for preservation of historic properties and authorizes DPNR to approve grants to property owners; it does not make any appropriation to the fund, however.
A property owner who invests $500,000 or more in his property is granted a 25-year property tax exemption.
The owner of an owner-occupied property who invests at least $5,000 is entitled to a 10-year property tax exemption, or an exemption equal to the total he invested – whichever is less.
The entire bill can be found on a website created to build support for it, www.preservevi.org.
“The overall purpose of the bill is admirable,” said St. Thomas attorney David Bornn, but added, “The bill is more stick than carrot.” He is president of Downtown Revitalization Inc., an organization concentrating on Charlotte Amalie, but said his comments are his own because DRI has not yet taken a position on the proposal.
For Bornn, the proposal is too heavy-handed. He said he would like to see more provision for educating property owners about resources they can tap to make renovations. The Virgin Islands enterprise zones, where tax incentives are available, have “vastly expanded their footprint” to include buildings in the “foothills” of downtown, he said. Meanwhile, the V.I. Housing Finance Authority has a multitude of programs offering assistance, as do some federal agencies.
Given the tight economy and the poor financial condition of the government, Bornn questioned how easy it will be to get government grants. And he said the Historic Preservation office is already short of staff, and could be hard-pressed to take on the extra duties contemplated in the legislation.
Sean Krigger, acting director of the Division for Archeology and Historic Preservation and the deputy State Historic Preservation officer, shared that concern. While the commission is given much of the responsibility, his office provides the staff support for the commission, and it “absolutely” will need more staff, in particular an attorney, he said.
Krigger said he thinks the bill could be more flexible in its deadlines for improving properties, and said he’d like to see legislation that consolidates all the sections of the code involving historic preservation. But overall he said “the elements of the bill, I think, are good things. I recognize a lot of things in the bill that we have been advocating for years.”
For Newland, the legislation will give property owners incentives to maintain their property, improve the rest of the neighborhood and the community at large, and eventually increase revenues for the government.
“It would be a win-win all the way around,” she said.