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HomeNewsLocal governmentLegislators Debate Historic Preservation Office Restrictions

Legislators Debate Historic Preservation Office Restrictions

Frederiksted building. (Photo from 2012 presentation by the Community Alliance to Preserve Our Neighborhoods)

As Sen. Kenneth Gittens predicted, everyone at Tuesday’s Committee on Disaster Recovery, Infrastructure, and Planning hearing agreed that the dilapidated and abandoned buildings in the historic sections of the territory’s towns created an ugly situation.

The problems associated with them mentioned included being eyesores, incubators of criminal activity, and attractive homes for rodents and insects.

However, there were some sharp divisions on how the issues could be addressed and if Gittens bill, which would help. The bill would authorize the Historic Preservation Commission to relax restrictions concerning historical and cultural assets in Christiansted, Frederiksted, Charlotte Amalie, and Cruz Bay.

The senators disagreed, but the sharpest verbal dispute was between State Historic Preservation Office Director Sean Krigger and Realtor April Newland.

Krigger referred to some criticism of his office as lies. Newland reacted by saying that calling the criticism lies was an insult to the realtors of the territory. She said she could have filled the Senate Chambers with realtors and landowners who complained about the Historic Preservation Office.

Both Krigger and Newland have a long history in this battle. Since graduating from Charlotte Amalie High School in 1990 and Pratt Institute in New York in 1995 with a bachelor of arts, Krigger has spent most of his working life at the Historic Preservation Office. He has renovated his own home in the Charlotte Amalie Historic District.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Newland mentioned a previous law introduced in 2011 for which she advocated passage. It never did pass.

In his introduction to the bill, Gittens said the new proposal would not cure all the issues that contribute to so many dilapidated buildings downtown but would be a first step.

Downtowns’ dilapidated and abandoned buildings have been a government concern for years.

In 2007, the Source ran a series on abandoned and dilapidated buildings.

Department of Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Pierre Oriol said the assumption that the dilapidated buildings were there because of a stringent permitting process was wrong. He added that the word “stringent” was thrown around in the bill and discussions, but no specifics about what was “stringent” were noted. He said that over 96 percent of applicants to the Historic Preservation Commission were approved.

Newland said restrictions have discouraged local and stateside buyers from purchasing and renovating properties. She supported the bill. She said if the restrictions were lifted, it would allow faster preservation and rehabilitation of historic properties.

Akil Petersen, a member of the Historic Preservation Commission, testified, “We don’t want to hold anybody up.” He added that when it comes to dilapidated buildings, “You guys need to look in the mirror.” He pointed out that many of the dilapidated buildings in the historic districts were government-owned.

Shomari Moorehead, president of Our Town Frederiksted, took more of the middle road in his testimony. He said the bill’s intention was good, but he could not endorse it because it was vague. He added that the bill’s current version fails to protect the town and broader community adequately.

He added that he had some complaints when he dealt with the Historic Preservation Office, but it was not as “scary” as some people made it out to be. He said his opinion was that the office had three problems — public relations, enforcement, and funding.

Several senators indicated that they believed more funding should be set aside to help property owners in the downtown areas. Sen. Milton Potter said housing had risen so drastically recently that a resident had to win the lottery to buy a home.

John Woods, president of the St. Thomas Chamber of Commerce, testified, “I have found in my more than four decades of practicing architecture that the Historic Preservation Commission already takes into account the very items that are trying to be achieved with this bill.”

Newland testified, “If these restrictions were relaxed,” the territory would see “the renovation and rehabilitation of historic properties progress at a much faster rate.”

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