Now that the latest sideshow on rezoning has ended and the carnival barkers have retired to their tents until the next line of would-be marks shows up, it seems like a rational moment to discuss the broader issues surrounding the act of rezoning properties in the Virgin Islands.
Zoning laws serve a variety of purposes, but the two most common are promoting a use of land consistent with community values and protecting the value of currently developed land. Community values can be expressed in cultural, economic or environmental terms. The value of currently developed land has a strictly economic measurement.
The cultural values attached to land use are myriad. Some communities, for instance, would not allow nightclubs that promote nudity to operate within their jurisdiction. Others would have land, usually removed from the beaten path, set aside for such uses. One of the goals of zoning law is to clearly define how development should occur within the framework of those cultural values.
Economic values within a community also are varied. A community may decide that it values peace and quiet more than the money that a noisy manufacturing plant would generate. On the other hand, another community may be so hard pressed for jobs that it would be willing to site an army weapons lab nearby to stimulate growth. Optimally, the goal of zoning laws would be to have a balance in the community that promotes economic growth in harmony with the cultural and environmental needs that exist.
The environmental integrity of a community is another factor that must be considered in zoning laws. A community would be placing itself at unnecessary risk to site a hazardous chemical facility next to its source of water. It would be equally foolish to destroy a natural resource through poor zoning. Placing a facility with poor air quality controls next to a park that has a variety of endangered species would be a good example of poor environmental balance.
The value of previously developed land can be greatly harmed by poor zoning laws. Suppose a person built a $1 million home on a tract of land zoned for residential development. Then suppose that the local authorities rezoned adjacent land to accommodate a noisy industrial facility. What would the value of the land with the home then be?
All of these issues influence zoning laws around the nation. The problem in the Virgin Islands is that we are frequently exposed to zoning changes that reflect one specific idea for development. The zoning laws are followed to the letter, but the spirit of those laws is ignored. This could be because we need to change our process for development.
What if, for instance, we only rezoned property after an environmental assessment report and an environmental impact statement were filed? What if, during the course of that process, we solicited community comment on all aspects of the development? After the idea passed muster, would it not then eliminate debate? Would potential investors then have that much more reason to support a project? If a developer cannot afford a simple set of reports, how can he or she afford to build a multimillion-dollar project?
Instead, we simply have senators claiming that they support economic growth by voting to rezone a piece of land and then passing the idea to Coastal Zone Management, where the positives and negatives assume a life of their own. The only aspect changed, in theory, is the value of the undeveloped land. That is not economic development; it is simply grandstanding. Times are too tight to be playing games; we need real and positive growth.
All the Senate offered in the Estate Hartmanns rezoning to accommodate a resort on Wednesday was the thought of development on St. Croix. St. Croix does not need thoughts; it needs tangible opportunities. Perhaps if we reformed the process, we could see tangible results. Or is that idea too complicated?
Editor's note: Bill Turner is a writer, a former history teacher and the executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association. He writes a daily commentary on events in the Virgin Islands that can be accessed at V.I. Buzz.
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