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HomeNewsLocal newsSenators Seem Keen On Building Blocks and VITEMA Project

Senators Seem Keen On Building Blocks and VITEMA Project

An artist rendering of the proposed reconstructed VITEMA building. (Submitted photo)

The Senate Committee of the Whole heard testimony to justify zoning changes for three projects Friday. The Territorial Emergency Management Agency wants to reconstruct its old building in Hermon Hill. Just Right Trucking wants to make cement blocks in Estate Orange Grove.

Property owner Juliana Fabian wants to open a beauty salon in her home in Estate Sion Hill, Queen Quarter. She was represented by her daughter Hernys Jimenez.

The Committee of the Whole hears testimony but takes no votes. It was the first Committee of the Whole for the thirty-fifth Legislature and all 15 Senators attended the six-hour session.

The VITEMA project, which requires the property to be rezoned Residential-Medium Density to Public, is the largest project of the three.

The two-story building, which was essentially abandoned in 2011 due to mold problems, would double in size and become four stories in one wing. It would house VITEMA’s main office/center of operations on St. Croix and include an Emergency Operations Center, a safe room for emergency responders to shelter in place during storms/disasters, and a 911 Emergency Center. VITEMA could then vacate buildings it rents in Christiansted and La Reine.

The Housing Finance Authority deeded the property, which included five acres to VITEMA in 1992.

Daryl Jaschen, director of VITEMA, testified that FEMA approved the project in 2021 and the $22.5 million in federal funds had several requirements. First, the site selected had to be at Hermon Hill; second, the building had to be contained within the footprint of the original structure; third, the safe-room design had to accommodate up to 200 emergency response individuals to serve as a haven while a storm passed St. Croix. Finally, federal funding was limited to the building, parking lot, and emergency power generation.

When Senate President Novelle Francis asked about the potential for alternative energy generations, Jaschen replied that it was being considered but a different funding source would have to be found.

The Department of Natural Resources recommended approving the zoning change, although it had received a letter with 27 signatures opposing the project. Reasons cited by those against the project amid a residential area included more noise, more traffic, decreased property value, and too high of a building where a neighborhood association has limited building height to two stories.

The Senators all seemed disposed to approve the change, as Sen. Dwayne DeGraff said, “Because it is VITEMA.”

The zoning change request most debated was to change the zoning of property across from the Orange Grove Pueblo so Just Right Trucking could be allowed to make concrete blocks.

Leia LaPlace-Matthew, DPNR Territorial Planner, said the department recommends the Senate deny the request. She said making the blocks constituted an industrial enterprise and approving it would set a precedent for allowing industrial activities in areas designated for mixed business and residents.

Mitchell Matthew, owner of Just Right Trucking, said he had already invested $2 million in the project, not realizing that he would need a zoning change.

Most senators seem prepared to go along with the change because cement blocks presently are all imported and often not easy to get. Francis said he noticed construction projects were delayed because of the lack of bricks. Matthew said he would be able to lower the price of bricks from $2.25 to $1.87 and this would drive down the cost of construction of housing.

Sen. Marise James said she still had concerns about the change. She said her decision would not be driven by the need for blocks because “The need can be satisfied anywhere on St. Croix.”

As for the proposed zoning use variance for the beauty salon in Sion Hill, senators had little comment beyond congratulating Fabian for going into business.

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