Owners of historic V.I. properties will be required to maintain and restore them inside and out or face fines of up to $5,000 per day, if a bill sent out of the Committee on Planning and Environmental Protection Friday becomes law.
The bill, sponsored by Sens. Louis Hill, Sammuel Sanes and Janette Millin-Young, also allows owners who live in historic properties to deduct the full cost of renovations from their property taxes through an exemption of up to 10 years. Commercial or rental property owners would be able to deduct half the cost of renovations from their taxes.
There would be exemptions for those who can demonstrate either that the work is impractical or that they cannot afford it, and a complex system of approvals and appeals is laid out in the 40-page bill. While fines may be imposed, there is no provision for property to be attached and sold for failure to comply with any of the bill’s provisions. The bill would create a historic preservation commission fund and the power to make loans.
Government officials and nonprofit agency representatives dealing with historic preservation all spoke in favor of the bill during two days of hearings this week, while suggesting changes to its details, and senators broadly supported its intent as well. Some, including Senate President Ronald Russell, said the cost of being fully historically accurate is often very high and suggested there should be some leeway about less significant buildings on back streets.
"My view is only parts of the town have to be fully historically restored, doing the whole town is not necessary," Russell said. Also, focusing on exteriors and less on interiors would lessen the burden on property owners, while preserving the appearance of the town for posterity, he said.
"The cost of renovating the interiors is huge; it costs more than twice as much as it would with modern materials and equipment," he said.
St. Croix Foundation Executive Director Roger Dewey agreed.
"You could have the exterior historically accurate and give some leeway on the interior," Dewey said.
Several testifiers involved in historic preservation supported the bill but said regular funding would also be very important.
"This bill does an admirable job of extending property tax credits to owners as an incentive to maintain and repair historic properties," St. Thomas Historic Preservation Office Director Lorna Thomas said during hearings on St. Thomas Thursday. "However, repair and ongoing maintenance costs will likely never be reasonably recouped through tax credits. More importantly, we cannot ignore the fact that many property owners simply lack the resources to repair, rehabilitate or maintain the properties in the first place."
There should be a regular source of funding and the Historic Preservation Commission should be able to give grants as well as loans, Thomas said.
The bill was approved and sent on for consideration by the Rules and Judiciary Committee. Voting yea were Sens. Russell, Craig Barshinger, Patrick Hill and Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, Absent were Sens. Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Neville James and Patrick Sprauve.
A bill creating new regulations on cell towers was held in committee by unanimous consent.