Although more than a dozen people testified Wednesday on the Legislature’s pending Antiquities Preservation and Historic Properties bill, Bunker Hill Hotel owner Angela Rawlins made the most compelling case for its passage at the Planning and Environmental Protection Committee’s meeting.
“I’m always explaining, making excuses,” Rawlins said about her conversations with tourists concerning the abandoned buildings, crime, drugs and other social ills that permeate the Commandant Gade area of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, where the hotel is located.
In heartbreaking testimony at Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall, Rawlins said it was demoralizing to deal with these issues every day in an area that is so rich in history.
Rawlins was the final speaker of the day, but it began with another testifier who made a strong case for help in the historic districts.
St. Croix resident Bernard Victor said Christiansted just lost another part of its history when the first house owned by a free slave burned because homeless people using candles in an adjacent abandoned building didn’t have electricity to use for light. The candles caused a fire.
“Almost everyone wants to cry when they see an historic house burn,” Victor said.
LaVaughn Belle, who is renovating several buildings in Christiansted, said she began the project because she needed a studio for her artwork, but the project includes two buildings at Sunday Market Square and two in a Christiansted area called Free Gut because it’s where freed slaves lived.
One house, in particular, has touched her heart. She said research shows that the first owner was a woman named Elizabeth Gabriel, who was brought to St. Croix as a slave but eventually was able to buy property as a free woman.
“We need you to remember Elizabeth Gabriel, the owner of that house,” Belle said.
Belle discussed the numerous challenges she’s faced in rehabilitating derelict buildings.
“Visa, MasterCard and American Express are our dearest friends,” she said, laughing as she spoke about the monetary issues.
While everyone who testified, including those from various historic agencies and the real estate industry, appeared in favor of the bill, several expressed concerns and had suggestions on ways to make it more palatable.
John Euwema, who said he grew up near the Bunker Hill Hotel and still lives in downtown Charlotte Amalie, indicated that many people across the Virgin Islands perceive that there’s some underhandedness going in with the bill because members of the Association of Realtors are pushing it.
“They have a perception of creating problems,” Euwema said.
He and others spoke about the need to fix the social ills endemic in the historic districts.
“If we don’t deal with parallel social issues, there will be no tenants,” Euwema said.
At issue is the perception that property owners who can’t afford to rehabilitate their properties will lose them. However, Sen. Louis P. Hill, who chaired the meeting and sponsored the bill, said there is a provision in the bill that lets people who can’t fiscally or physically undertake the job off the hook.
Others testified that the territory’s cumbersome probate laws mean many buildings have multiple owners who can’t agree on what to do with the building. Hence it sits vacant, deteriorating, and is a haven for homeless people and drug users. Under the terms of the bill, those owners will face fines for letting their properties sit derelict.
“And most of those people have not paid property taxes,” said Nadine Marchena Kean, director of the Economic Development Authority’s Enterprise Zone Commission.
Sen. Neville James pointed out that some of the derelict buildings in Christiansted are owned by “people of wealth,” so there is no excuse for the lack of repair, he said. O’Reilly suggested that their names be posted on the derelict buildings to embarrass them.
The territorial Association of Realtors came armed with many facts and figures that clearly spelled out the problem.
According to Vandell Percival, a University of the Virgin Islands student who worked on a survey of historic district buildings for the Association of Realtors, the Charlotte Amalie historic district has 1,404 lots. Of that figure, 196 are in fair or poor condition.
Of the 860 lots in the Christiansted historic district, 125 are in fair or poor condition, Percival. In Frederiksted, 102 of the 502 lots are in fair or poor condition. Those numbers include lots with and without buildings.
But the pictures also told the story, with some showing just the bare bones of the building. Others had trees growing out the roofs. Still others were roofless.
Those senators at the meeting agreed to table the bill until amendments can be written and a similar hearing held on St. Croix.
In addition to committee members Hill, O’Reilly and James, Sens. Craig Barshinger, Carlton Dowe and Patrick Simeon Sprauve attended the meeting. Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, who is not on the committee, arrived to ask some questions. Sen. Ronald Russell was absent.