Sept. 2, 2004 Close to 100 North Side and West End residents let senators know Tuesday evening that they do not want commercial development to invade their quality of life the peace and quiet of their neighborhoods.
The residents turned out in numbers at the Senate Committee of the Whole hearing on St. Thomas in a well-orchestrated effort to oppose spot zoning, something that could be put finally to rest when and if a land and water use bill is enacted.
Some form of a bill that would define specific uses has been in the works for more than 20 years. Lawrence Benjamin, who worked on the bill years ago when he was with the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, sat in the audience Tuesday night to protect his home in Solberg, one of the areas proposed for a zoning change to allow a night club, restaurant and variety store.
Dean Plaskett, DPNR commissioner, called spot zoning "unconstitutional" in an August Senate meeting. He said it permits haphazard development and adverse environmental impacts.
Attorney Rosalie Ballentine, League of Women Voters president, echoed Plaskett's sentiments.
She said though the League would not take a position on any of the individual zoning requests, it firmly opposes spot zoning. She asked for a moratorium on all zoning changes until the Legislature passes a land and water use plan. "At some point, we have to stop what we are doing, even on St. John," she said.
Sen. Louis Hill, Planning and Environmental Protection Committee chairman in whose committee the bill is being heard, also encouraged "slowing down" before approving any zoning now. Hill and Sen. Usie Richards, the bill's primary sponsor, have been working for more than a year on the current version of the legislation. Hill said to engage in spot zoning now, would require the zoning map in the bill to be changed.
Jason Budsan, North Side Civic Association issues chairman, decried the meeting being held before the Senate at all. "I would like to see politics taken out of the realm of zoning requests," he said, noting after all the political processes, "the people have the greatest voice."
He said, "Tonight I hope this will be the very last-ever rezoning hearing before this body."
Most states have planning and zoning commissions or boards, where the process never goes before state senates.
Politics did raise its bobbing head several times throughout the evening, however. That this is an election year was not lost on the senators, or their audience.
Sen. Lorraine Berry chaired the meeting for Senate President David Jones whom, she announced, would be late for the meeting.
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg challenged the removal of three requests from the agenda one for Blackpoint Lookout LLC for a gas station, convenience store and restaurant in Bonne Esperance; one for Mark Brin and Theodore and Pearla Larsen for a restaurant, gas station, office and retail business in the Solberg Scott Free area; and another for a West End development by Michael Dixon which had been tabled by the committee last July. Jones later said the Dixon request was put on the agenda in error.
Donastorg said the removal "arouses suspicion." The Blackpoint and the Solberg requests have been strongly opposed by residents. Sen. Carlton Dowe said early in the meeting that he would "never vote for gas stations."
The remarks apparently made Jones irate. When he arrived at the meeting he made clear there was "no hanky-panky" involved. He said representatives for the properties were off-island and couldn't attend the meeting, and had requested a postponement. He said the meeting should not be used to "grandstand and gain political mileage."
Jones prefaced his remarks by explaining his earlier absence: "I've been talking to investors to help develop the economy of the territory. Unlike those people who want to save turtles, I want to save the people."
Residents, anxious to make their pleas heard, crowded the Legislature inner sanctum, the "well," with senators relinquishing their front row seats. Residents of Gamble Nordsidevei presented a petition signed by 55 residents of the area at the foot of Frenchman's Hill and Kronprindsens Quarter where Timothy Ernest wants to build a windshield installation center.
The DPNR representatives recommended a variance allowing only for the center — no other business. An alternative to rezoning, a variance is granted to the zoning for a particular parcel. A variance restricts owners to doing with the land strictly what they had proposed to do in order to be excepted from the zoning restrictions.
Residents weren't buying that, and neither were most of the senators, many of whom who agreed it would further run down an already run-down neighborhood. Lionel Boschulte, DPNR chief building inspector, represented Ernest. When Sen. Ronald Russell asked Boschulte if Ernest lived on St. Thomas and paid taxes, Boschulte replied "no," an answer not geared to be popular with the senators.
Boschulte later said he was only trying to set up a business for a Virgin Islander to "come home." He said his position at DPNR did not represent a conflict of interest.
Russell said it's a question of whether "the government responds to the people, or the people respond to the government." He said, "I represent the people, and if enough people want to move in a certain direction, I would listen." He received a warm hand of applause, quickly silenced by Berry, who had earlier cautioned the crowd to restrain their emotions.
Benita Martin-Samuel, representing We Grow Foods Inc., a local farmers group from the Bordeaux-Fortuna area, opposed Edmundo and Milagros Zayas' proposal to build a grocery store in the Fortuna area. She said "our store is right up on the corner, almost across the street."
She also took issue with the building's appearance which she likened to airport hangars. "They stick out like a white elephant," she said.
Fortuna resident Sedric Lewis also opposed the appearance of the buildings. He said the owners wanted to use the structures for apartment dwellings, as well as a grocery store. He said, "I don't see how those Quonset huts can be used to house people." For those who remember, the now extinct Harry S. Truman Airport terminal on St. Thomas was, in fact, a Quonset hut.
Under questioning by Sen. Carlton Dowe, Zayas said he is thinking of adding a Laundromat in the future. How he would get the water and treat the waste came in for harsh criticism from residents and senators. "And what if some day you decide you'd like to add a gas station?" Dowe asked, noting the zoning could easily get out of hand.
Sen. Emmett Hansen II said, though he supports the land and water use plan, an eye must be given to business. He said, "St. Croix wants to vote no for everything." Hansen was critical of the land the government owns which lies fallow. He said the government should put the land to use, something included in his Homeownership Act of 2004, which the governor recently vetoed.
Hansen hopes to get an override for that veto in mid-September Senate sessions.
The biggest opposition came from a request by Randolph Vitalis LaPlace to build a bar, restaurant and variety store in Solberg. LaPlace was represented by attorney Arturo Watlington, who said the area is for a scenic overlook, a fact he said residents are overlooking.
One of the request's detractors noted she saw no mention of an overlook in the proposal. Solberg residents Faye and Donald Francois pled to keep their neighborhood peaceful. Challenging LaPlace's request "under the guise of providing an outlook," they presented a petition from area residents opposing any building.
As far as the overlook is concerned, Faye Francois said the neighborhood is already is fraught with noise, pollution
and traffic congestion from the taxis who regularly use the scenic overlook now.
Donald Francois said, "My wife and I waited 20 years to build our dream house, which is directly across from Mr. LaPlace's farm. If the Virgin Islands are to have anything resembling neighborhoods where its citizens can live safely and quietly, and have a place to retreat at the end of a long day of work, then spot zoning should be rejected."
Echoing Russell's earlier sentiments, Francois said, while also pleading with the senators to turn down a variance, "The wish of one person should not overrule the opposition of the neighbors. A zoning change should not be permitted just for the benefit of one landowner."
Solberg resident Kevin Lewis, who lives up the street from the proposed nightclub site, said the noise and the light "would destroy the quality of life my children and I cherish."
DPNR recommended denying the request.
The senators also heard requests from:
– Steve Lammens & Professional Design/builders Inc. for addition of a business office. Nobody opposed the request, and DPNR recommended the Senate approve the request.
– Heirs of Sammy E. Harthman Sr. to rezone property in New Quarter from agricultural use in exchange for allowing a 40-foot easement across their property. DPNR recommended approving the request if the applicant installs a green belt along the borders, and a cultural assessment of the property is done.
The meeting went on until midnight.
No votes were taken in the Committee of the Whole meeting, which only hears testimony. The zonings will come under a vote when the full Senate meets in mid-September.
All senators attended the meeting except Sens. Douglas Canton and Luther Renee, who were excused.
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