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Bill Requiring Stronger Buildings Passes First Hurdle

Sept. 9, 2004 – A bill to update the territory's building code passed muster with the Senate Planning and Environmental Protection Committee on Wednesday.
The government last improved its building code in 1995 after the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it would help rebuild the territory from Hurricane Marilyn's devastation if the Virgin Islands revamped its building code.
"The first test came in 1999 when Hurricane Lenny brushed St. Croix with the eye of the storm. It suffered minimal damage," said Brent E. Blyden, who serves as permits director at the Planning and Natural Resources Department.
This update adopts the International Building Code, the standard used by 44 states and the U.S. Defense Department. Its most important aspect comes in the way buildings are constructed to make them better able to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes, the two major threats to the territory's structures.
"It changes how we tie steel," said Stacy Bourne, the president of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Paul Ferreras, president of the V.I. Engineering Council, said that the new code takes topographical effects on wind speed into account. As an example, he said that a building located atop Crown Mountain in St. Thomas would need a stronger roof than one located in Savan, a neighborhood located just a few blocks from the sea.
Bourne and Ferreras both said they didn't think the new code would substantially increase construction costs.
It will be up to Planning's Permits Division to enforce the code.
"Without additional personnel to implement this, it will be rather meaningless," said Alton Adams, who serves on the Architects, Engineers and Land Surveyors Board.
Blyden agreed that staffing was a continuing problem because the construction industry continues to increase. In the year 2000, his department issued permits for $120 million worth of construction. By 2002, the number was up to $181.7 million. He estimated it would reach $250 million by the end of this year and said he expected it to exceed $300 million in 2005.
All those construction projects need inspection by an array of inspectors and are charged fees. However, Blyden said the revenues collected from fees and fines accounted for only about half of the department's 2005 budget request of $1.5 million.
The new building code allows the department to set fees based on what it actually costs to administer the program. Blyden said the residential and commercial fee scales are different because commercial properties need more extensive review and inspection.
Sen. Louis P. Hill, who chaired the meeting, complained that St. John's major contractors are not paying taxes. He wanted Blyden to have inspectors check pay stubs at construction sites, but Blyden nixed that idea.
"That's out of our jurisdiction," Blyden said, adding that it was an Internal Revenue Bureau matter.
All but one of the senators at the meeting voted to move the bill on to the Rules Committee. They were Sens. Shawn-Michael Malone, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Carlton Dowe, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, and Hill. Sen. Roosevelt David voted no. Sen. Ronald E. Russell was absent.
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