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Senate Considers Conservation Acts

Oct. 13, 2005 – Does pro-conservation mean anti-development?
Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville seems to believe so, but his colleagues were more hesitant to come to that conclusion in a debate Wednesday.
Under discussion at the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Planning and Environmental Protection were two bills – the Environmental Covenants Act of 2005 and the Uniform Conservation Easement Act.
Figueroa-Serville said he had to study the bills more, and that he was more worried about the unemployed and hungry on St. Croix than he was about conservation. He said a balance between conservation and development had to be reached.
Sen. Liston Davis opined that these bills might be a step in that direction. "There has to be a way of generating economic activity on St. Croix without losing what St. Croix is," he said.
Proponents said the bills would not only allow conservation, but could stimulate certain kinds of development.
Marjorie Hendrickson-Emanuel, director of Coastal and Comprehensive Planning, and Aaron Hutchins, the director of the Division of Environmental Protection who spoke for the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, said DPNR supported both bills.
Olasee Davis, environmentalist and cooperative extension specialist at the University of the Virgin Islands, said the bills could help resolve problems where residents are suddenly denied access to beaches where they traditionally had access.
The Conservation Easement Act would allow an owner to designate an easement to a third party before selling land. As an example, an owner of beachfront property could grant a right-of-way to the St. Croix Environmental Association; future owners of the land would have to honor that easement.
The committee received a letter from Rosalie Simmonds Ballentine, president of the League of Women Voters. She reiterated a statement made by representatives of the League when an almost identical bill was before the 24th Legislature. "Conservation easements and other similar incentives are essential if natural and historic resources of the Virgin Islands are to be fully protected," she wrote. "It should be noted that conservation easements can be used to preserve wildlife habitat, open space or agricultural land, or the historic features of a building while allowing the landowners to continue owning and using the property."
The Environmental Covenants Act of 2005 would provide a process for contaminated property to become useful again. It would allow the sale of property with a restriction attached. This could be helpful to a landowner who might find it too costly to sell his property and be held liable for its cleanup. This owner might choose just to fence off property and let it sit idle. One example discussed at the hearing was property where the well water has been contaminated. A sale of that property might be permitted with the attached restriction that water from the area not be used for drinking.
Hutchins said this law would play an integral part in DPNR's overall plan to make all contaminated land useful again.
Michael Kerr of the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, arrived at the hearing from Chicago to testify.
He said the two bills work to eliminate "legal concepts developed in feudal England and exported to the United States as common law that threaten public-private contracts aimed at preservation."
His association, which drafted both laws, is urging all states to adopt them.
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste said his concern with covenants was that many residents did not understand them. He said he had talked to many residents who had moved into housing developments and found out later that deed restrictions meant "things were not really as they thought they were."
No quorum was present after testimony was finished, so no action was taken. However, Sen. Neville James, chairman of the committee, said he would work to see both bills get through the 25th Legislature.
Committee members at the meeting were Sens. James, Davis, Jn Baptiste and Celestino White. Sens. Craig Barshinger and Usie Richards were excused. Sens. Figueroa-Serville and Louis Hill were present but not members of the committee.

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