The governor, as expected, vetoed the controversial Sirenusa late on Thursday. His reasons were logical and completely sustainable. The request for a zoning change, whereby the developer would add seven more units, was from an R-2 zoning to an R-3 zoning. The developer wanted to build higher units, above 2 stories, which required the change to R-3. In the plans process, the developer submitted two sets-the original and the one used to actually build the property. DPNR claims that the second was not submitted and the legal council for the senate indicated that the form of the zoning request had no basis in law. In the face of these negative submissions, the senate chose to pass the legislation anyway. The governor did not ignore the obvious problems with both the DPNR and legal council submissions and thus vetoed the bill.
In my opinion, the bill will not be reconsidered for an override by the senate. There has been no public support for this project since its inception. St Johnians, from the very beginning warned of the impending problems with this project and those concerns were evident by the myriad of complaints by neighbors, the cease and desist orders from DPNR, the abhorrent display at the public hearing in April and now the governors veto.
Issues such as this one have been commonplace throughout the Virgin Islands. St John has had to self-protect itself because it seems the agencies which would perform these functions are either under-staffed or not educated for the task of ensuring compliance with law. It took a citizens effort to bring out these deficiencies in every case having to do with Serenusa. Fortunately, there are extremely dedicated and knowledgeable people who reside on St John and through those individuals, the people as a whole are now realizing that they CAN help themselves when the government is either unwilling or unable to.
The whole issue of the legislature having the power to grant zoning variances is also in question. Clearly, the legislature writes laws and approves appropriations. The executive branch has the duty and authority to carry those laws out. It is also clear, that a zoning variance, or for that matter any action of enforcement of any law is the job of the executive branch. To even allow the legislature to carry out a function of the executive branch is a constitutional issue of separation of powers. The problem is, we dont have a constitution which allows that complete separation.
If the Virgin Islands had a Constitution which clearly defined government, then the order to allow a zoning change should have been in the hands of the executive branch within their role as head of the departments of government. Certainly, a zoning variance is an issue of law but an agency of the governments executive branch should be the arbiter of such issues and not the legislature. The law was written and the legislature got the job of zoning change and other such responsibilities because we have no Constitution to say other wise. The Organic Act gives the legislature broad powers and, in many cases, those powers should be directly under the prevue of the governor.
So, how can issue of zoning become an issue of the constitution? The answer lies in the laws of the Virgin Islands-The Virgin Islands Code. Much of the Code was written a long time ago, when the legislature was the government power of the Virgin Islands. Of course, it is constantly being updates as new laws are made. Yes, an appointed governor existed prior to 1970, when many of these laws were made but to a great extent was not much more that a rubber stamp to the legislature. Because the legislature had so much power at that time, the laws were written such that the legislature either had to maintain its power because they knew the executive branch was effectually non-responsive, or they wanted the power to remain in the legislature simply because of that-Power.
A Constitutional Convention will commence in July 2007. These issues and more will be presented and, hopefully resolved by creating a document that separates powers and defines the branches of government.
Serenusa is nothing more than another project among many. The issue of zoning changes would be better served within the community itself. We observed that at least five senators voted for the project re-zoning and admitted later that they had no idea about the project but voted only because the at-large senator voted for the re-zoning. If this issue was presented to a local populace, then it would strike directly at a local issue. As it is now, we have to depend on senators from St Croix or St Thomas to make decisions about St John and vice-versa. This also goes to the lack of constitutional language that would allow local municipal governments to exist whereby local issues can be resolved by locals, including issues such as zoning.
Perhaps thinking about what a constitution can do would motivate many to join in the process.
Editor's note: We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to firstname.lastname@example.org.