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Undercurrents: Historic Preservation Bill Still to Come

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

If an Antiquities Preservation and Historic Properties Act ever makes its way out of the 30th Legislature, it will likely look a lot different from the bill considered by the 29th Legislature.

Sen. Myron Jackson, who is now the official sponsor of the proposal, said he testified on it the last time around – before he was a senator – and expressed his concern that it could cause some residents to lose their property.

“The major controversy with this bill was with the taking of property,” he said.

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The proposal would set up a system of tax incentives and grant programs encouraging property owners to rehabilitate dilapidated historic properties, as well as fines for failure to do so. The program would be overseen by the commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources as the State Historic Preservation Officer.

“If all efforts” to get the owner to comply should fail,” or “if the SHPO determines that Government ownership is needed to preserve the historic property, and that Government ownership is in the public interest, the Governor, upon recommendation of the SHPO and the (V.I. Historic Preservation) Commission may purchase the property using public funds, public or private gifts, donations, grants, proceeds from the issuance of bonds, or may acquire the property by eminent domaine …”

The one condition cited is that the government have sufficient funding to complete the rehabilitation of the property within 18 months of its acquisition.

Proponents of the bill say it has built-in safeguards to protect property rights; an owner who can show it is financially or otherwise impossible to renovate a derelict structure may instead apply to demolish it.

They also point to a provision that calls for the creation of an Archaeological Preservation Fund from which the SHPO can make grants to property owners to fund rehabilitation work. To qualify for the grant, the owner might be required to agree that the SHPO or a non-profit, historic preservation organization has a “preservation interest” in it; that is, that it can control the treatment of the property so that its historical integrity is maintained.

The intent of the proposed legislation is not to take properties off the tax rolls, proponents say, but rather to ensure that owners are responsible for the upkeep of their property – a move they argue is for the good of the entire community and especially important for the value of nearby properties.

The controversial bill has twice been allowed to languish and die in committee.

Jackson said last week that he does intend to reintroduce the bill, but that he also plans to hold hearings, get input from various entities and individuals and incorporate suggestions from them and from people who testified on the bill last year.

He confirmed that he has asked David Bornn, a St. Thomas attorney in private practice who also leads the advocacy group, Downtown Revitalization, Inc., to work on it.

“I put in a request for an historic preservation bill” to legislative counsel in January, he said, and last week received a draft from the legal counsel’s office. He said he did not request any changes in the draft at that time.

Jackson downplayed suggestions that the proposal is stalled, instead blaming the delay on the legislative process.

But he also noted he has another bill in the hopper – one that appears to have the potential for considerable impact on the Antiquities bill.

He wants to create a new entity, the Department of Libraries, Museums, Archives, Historic Preservation, Culture and the Arts. Currently all of those are housed under DPNR – except for those that are “homeless” like “Culture,” he said.

Jackson indicated the change would give more weight to those functions. But it might also change the administrative structure of the State Historic Preservation Officer.

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