DPNR Takes a Crack at Eliminating Unsafe Structures and Stemming Island Blight

The view is about all that remains of this home on St. Thomas’ Northside, post Hurricane Irma. Photo by Kelsey Nowakowski.
The view is about all that remains of this home on St. Thomas’ Northside, post Hurricane Irma. Photo by Kelsey Nowakowski.

The program to clear the territory of hurricane damaged buildings posing a danger to safety may be a case of easier said than done. But that won’t keep Dawn Henry, commissioner of Planning and Natural Resources, from trying.

In an interview, Henry said DPNR announced the program as a way to remind property owners – especially those hard hit by the September hurricanes – that they have a responsibility to secure damaged buildings, even if the process seems overwhelming.

“What we want to prevent is people saying ‘It’s too much’ and they just walk away,” she said.

The government doesn’t want people living in or visiting unsafe structures, she added, nor does it want to see eyesores proliferate.

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While many residents may not be aware, existing law gives DPNR the authority to determine whether a structure is unsafe.

The department issued a news release in early January “reminding” the public that under Title 29, Section 297 of the V.I. Code, it has the responsibility of notifying the owner(s) of such a property and “requiring it be made safe and secure or vacated and closed or taken down.”

The release said the government would inspect buildings and notify owners if it was determined the buildings needed major repair or needed to be demolished. If an owner failed to rectify the situation, the department could tear down the building and send the owner a bill for the cost of demolition.

Henry said in the past the department has worked with a government task force on isolated cases, but as far as she knows, this is the first time it has set out to exercise this authority on a large scale.

A heavily damaged building in downtown Charlotte Amalie bears witness to the power of Hurricane Irma. (Kelsey Nowakowski photo)
A heavily damaged building in downtown Charlotte Amalie bears witness to the power of Hurricane Irma. (Kelsey Nowakowski photo)

“No one (in the department) is aware that this provision of the Code has been implemented before after a natural disaster,” she said. “We’re going to be learning as we go.”

It’s too early to make a real estimate of the numbers of buildings that may fall into the program, but Henry said it is “probably hundreds.” She noted that owners of 15,000 houses have applied to FEMA for roofing assistance, so it’s not unreasonable to think hundreds are damaged badly enough to be dangerous.

“We’re not going to be able to get to every house in the territory,” she conceded, but said the department is serious about the effort. It requested money from FEMA to hire more inspectors; one new inspector arrived in the territory this week and four more are expected next week.

DPNR inspectors are also working with other government agencies, assessing some government property, Henry said. Specifically, it is working with the Housing Authority on assessing the Tutu Hi Rise subsidized housing complex and will work with the Education Department in assessing some schools.

Additionally, Henry said home owners can contact DPNR if they want help. Assistance consists of “letting them know what needs to be done” to make a property safe and habitable, and that knowledge could be helpful when they deal with an insurance claim or a request for financial assistance.

If past efforts to curb blight are any indication, the current program could prove difficult to implement.

Several years ago the Virgin Islands Territorial Association of Realtors mounted a major campaign to get the Legislature to enact what it called the Historic Properties Act. A survey funded by Realtors and conducted by the University of the Virgin Islands concluded there were 224 derelict buildings in the territory’s historic districts that needed major renovation or demolition. Some of those may have been victims of previous storms or other disasters such as fire; others were the result of long-term neglect.

The proposed legislation would have given property owners tax breaks and some technical assistance as incentives to make repairs and allowed for demolition of a property if an owner could demonstrate he couldn’t afford to rehabilitate it. The bill also called for fines for failure to act. DPNR would have been in charge of the program.

The bill was aired in more than one legislative term and amended after public hearings, but critics expressed concern about private property rights and suggested the legislation would promote a “land grab.” Senators let the bill die after a series of delays. The Realtors’ campaign ran out of oxygen about three years ago.

“Our initiative died,” Realtor April Newland said Thursday. “It didn’t go anywhere.”

The ill-fated Historic Properties proposal had included language giving an owner six months to make mandated changes and six months to appeal a ruling against him.

In announcing its current move to clear uninhabitable structures, DPNR did not cite an appeals process. But Henry said home owners can rely on provisions in the Building Permits section of the Code that allow 30 days to appeal a decision and provide for the right to go to court after that.

“I have not gotten any legal advice about us moving forward on this initiative,” she said. Rather, the department is relying on existing law for its authority.

As Henry describes the program, it is not adversarial but a protection for individual owners and for the community.

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