I commend all who have participated in the writing, review and critique of the proposed Land and Water Use Plan. Changes to our current zoning ordinance are needed; and your efforts are much appreciated. I caution the community though, not to expect the plan to be quickly updated and enacted. This process requires much foresight, deliberation, evaluation, revision, public participation and refinement. It is more important for the community to achieve an effective plan than it is to have either a quick or a new plan.
An effective plan is vital for guiding, monitoring and managing the careful growth and successful development of our community. However, in order to be successful, a plan has to reflect a vision that first identifies the issues necessary to be resolved. The plan must clearly articulate the goals and objectives to be attained. And these goals and objectives must reflect the consensus and approval of the community at large.
In other words, if we were to consider our community to be a household intending to embark on a family vacation, we would first need to agree on certain basic components of the trip: What is our agreed upon destination? Where are we going? When can we all conveniently travel? Which family members will be invited to travel? What will be the length of our stay? How much will it cost? And, can we, as a family, afford the proposed destination?
No rational group of family members would consider purchasing tickets for a trip when the destination is yet unknown. Nevertheless, we have a proposed law before us, bill number assigned, ready for adoption. Yet, we have still to agree, as a community, on where we are going.
When we look at the objectives that are outlined under this plan we see a clear emphasis on environmental goals. This is good. However, this should not be all.
An effective plan needs to speak to more than just the quality and preservation of natural resources and open space. An effective plan needs to first understand the desires and aspirations of the people. We need to ask ourselves: Where do we want our community to be within a defined period of time – say, 10, 20, 30 years from now?
What is our Mission Statement? What are we trying to achieve? How do we want our people to live? How many residents will we attempt to provide for? Where will the homes be located? Where will our schools be located? Will they be able to grow to meet increasing community needs? Can there be an elementary school within easy transport distance of individual communities? What are our transportation alternatives? How will we move community residents from their homes to their places of employment? How can we cut down on driving of individual cars? What is the relationship between effective community planning and crime? What are community recreational facilities proposed to be? How do we plan to respond to our existing housing crisis? Who will be able to own their own homes in the Virgin Islands? Do we want to have a society where large numbers of the middle class our school teachers, middle managers, police officers, firemen, government administrators and store managers are equity stakeholders, landowners and homeowners? Or do we want to be like Monaco, an island tax-haven for the rich and famous – but a place where a school teacher cannot afford to live, much less to buy a home? Do we want to be the most visually spectacular tourism destination on the market, but have our rank and file, our policemen, nurses and government workers have to live in public housing? I, for one, reject that as a goal.
An initial review of the plan as proposed today mentions none of these questions. And, from what I see, as several other members of the local architectural, engineering, and planning community and I have met to review this proposed plan, this 15-year old plan does not even ask these questions – much less beginning to provide effective answers to them.
When I raised these questions at the public hearing held at the Bertha C. Boschulte School, recently, I was assured by one of the presenters, a government official, that these concerns had been reviewed and that goals and objectives had been established. I was later handed a document by someone from a Senator's office entitled "Why Virgin Islands?" I first assumed that this document was intended to alleviate my concerns regarding the apparent absence of stated goals and objectives. It did not. The out-of-date document was prepared a full generation ago – in 1981- under the tenure of Gov. Juan F. Luis, while Mr. Thomas R. Blake was director of Planning.
Instead of assuaging my concerns, the 24-year-old document forces me to again refer to my family-vacation analogy. Here, though, instead of being asked where we would like to go, we are being told in a loud, authoritative voice: We are going to a particular destination, because that is where the generation that came before you your parents and others said they wanted to go. I object. And, I believe that many Virgin Islanders who were not living on these Islands or for that matter even yet born when the question was originally asked would also object.
The Virgin Islands are blessed with an extraordinarily diverse population, attracted by our climate, political stability, beauty and opportunity that the geography and economy afford. We neighbor many less well-off islands with economically stressed inhabitants seeking a better life. Moreover, we have legislated and are now fighting to retain policies that offer tax incentives in return for the mandate that high net-worth recipients establish primary residences here. On the one hand, we invite the wealthy and require them to establish residency, being fully aware that their homes will be luxurious, manicured estates in gated communities, fit for persons of their levels of success and wealth.
On the other hand, we turn a blind eye and allow thousands of individuals to enter our shores, mostly illegally, at the bottom of the economic ladder, in search of a job and a place to sleep no matter how crowded, unsanitary or unsightly. We have discovered that living next door to either these enormously valuable properties or to the overcrowded and depressed neighborhoods can be a double edged sword. Either increased tax assessments or deteriorating desirability levels always affects neighboring districts. Moreover, tourism generates a seasonal influx of workers that further destabilizes our housing market.
These forces acting on the housing market make it very difficult for our middle class to find quality, affordable housing in neighborhoods suitable for families. More and more, families are faced with the unfortunate choices of paying substantially higher prices and raising their cost of living, lowering their living standards or abandoning the Virgin Islands and moving to the U.S. mainland.
The Plan fails an unspoken first goal: " do no harm ." Our initial review shows a substantial increase in the land area dedicated to conservation with 5-acre minimum dwelling lot sizes. While conservation is desirable, this redistricting will reduce the inventory of residential real estate. It is an economic fact that when the supply of properly zoned land is reduced, the price of the available land increases. Affordable land and housing, already in critically short supply, will be made much worse by this plan. The cost increases in affordable lands, coupled with pressures exerted from the upper as well as the lower economic stratums will be exacerbated, continuing to force out the essential middle class, the very backbone of our community. This would be extremely destructive.
We already have a model of what happens when we dedicate large portions of an island-community's land mass to conservation in the Virgin Islands. That model is called "St. John." I recently asked a group of local architects and engineers: When was the last time a school teacher, police officer or even a V.I. government commissioner purchased a parcel of lan
d on the open market on St. John? Answer: " it must have been back in the old days ."
There are other models that we can learn from. Among the more prominent is the island of Nantucket, in the state of Massachusetts. Like the Virgin Islands, a popular tourist and resort destination, housing is the most critical issue facing Nantucket's agenda. For people born and raised there, no problem is more severe that the lack of housing at a price they can afford. The problem is no less severe for those who own Nantucket businesses or who manage schools or agencies, concerned about housing for employees. Housing prices are now out of reach for most people whose incomes are earned from on-island sources. The housing crisis, caused by the escalation of real estate prices, lies at the heart of most of Nantucket's economic, social and even environmental problems. It distorts the cost-structures of the economy, rippling inflated costs across all economic sectors. It forces people to work several jobs in order to pay for their homes. This causes parents to be away from their families for longer periods of time, reduces parent-child supervision and contact and results in all the expected behavioral and social ills. The housing crisis forces employers to pay wages and salaries that are even higher than the mainland so that their employees can meet housing costs. This raises the cost of doing business locally and makes it less likely that residents make purchases of goods and services from within the immediate community. It makes those employed in the construction industry anxious about regulations that could possibly reduce construction activity and their ability to meet steep mortgage payments. This creates an island-wide inflationary spiral which feeds on itself to the detriment of economic stability, open space and Nantucket's fragile ecology.
The V.I. has a zoning ordinance enacted more than 30 years ago. With many shortcomings and flaws, it is far from perfect. But we know where the flaws are located. As conventional wisdom says, " the Devil that we know, is better than the Devil that we don't know ." For example, we know that the current zoning districts are overly broad. If adjustments are made in response to requests for zoning changes to a desirable use, the proposed change usually would bring in a host of undesirable uses. These new permitted uses usually include several that could adversely affect the stability of the neighborhood. This deficiency would be simple to remedy, however, by allowing variances under certain specified conditions, or through the creation of certain sub-districts. Uses permitted under these sub-districts could be restructured to eliminate those uses thought to be damaging from a community stability and quality-of-life standpoint.
There is no compelling reason that requires throwing away an entire current Zoning Code simply because it contains certain specific flaws. This is especially critical when the document set to replace it is also badly flawed with flaws like the stated land and housing cost increase issue, potentially so devastating that severe social upheaval could result. Again: " watch out for the Devil that we don't know ." Unintended consequences always occur. And, they are usually quite hurtful.
I encourage our Planning Office (DPNR) and our lawmakers to re-evaluate the proposed Land and Water Use Plan. Find out in great detail what our communities envision as their goals for the future. These questions may have been asked 25 years ago when the data was originally collected. Given the lengthy passage of time since then, however, it needs to be asked again. Special consideration should be given to the aspirations of our youngest residents. In 1981, when the circulated Goals and Objectives document was published, many in this age group were not even born. Moreover, today's young adults will have to live with the consequences of these decisions for the longest period of time.
As concerned, committed community residents, we have been given stewardship of this territory. As more people become aware of the spectacular potential jewel that the Virgin Islands could be, there will be increased pressures placed on those of us who live here. Let us develop land-use policies that enhance potential, harmony and stability for all. Let us ensure that our children, grandchildren and beyond will be able to acquire ownership to real property here. Let us strive to achieve an economy where they will be encouraged to buy, not be forced to sell what they own in order to pay the taxes. And that our children and grandchildren if they so choose will be here to share the prosperity that hopefully, will be created.
Editor's note: Robert deJongh, AIA, is President of The deJongh Group, PC, Architects and Planners. The 31-year-old award-winning firm, founded in 1973 on St. Thomas, has projects throughout the Virgin Islands, other areas of the Caribbean, Atlanta, Texas and New York.
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