Published: Jan 30, 2024

ST. THOMAS – The 35th Legislature of the Virgin Islands’ Committee on Disaster Recovery, Infrastructure and Planning met in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Chambers. Lawmakers considered measures to adopt nationally recognized building codes, as well as another to authorize the Historic Preservation Commission to relax restrictions in historic downtown districts.

Chairman Milton E. Potter voiced concern over the speed of recovery. Echoing statements of the honorable Governor Albert Bryan’s State of the Territory Address, he stated that it would take 20 years for the territory to complete its recovery based on current trends. Potter stated that there is an urgent need for us to rebuild schools, health care facilities, roads, and other important instrumentalities. Chairman Potter stated that he remained engaged with ODR Director Adrienne Williams-Octalien, on the RebuildVI initiative, which would focus on grouping the recovery projects in bundles.

Lawmakers deliberated on Bill No. 35-0172, an act amending Title 29, Chapter 5, Virgin Islands Code, relating to building codes to provide for adoption of nationally recognized consensus-based codes and standards and amendments to such codes that are in the best interests of the territory, and to provide for clarifications to the Virgin Islands building code. The measure was sponsored by Senator Donna A. Frett-Gregory, and co-sponsored by Senator Novelle E. Francis, Jr. Per bill sponsor Frett-Gregory, this proposed measure would update US Virgin Islands building codes, which have not been revised since 2010.

Julio U.B. King, the Chairman of the Virgin Islands Board of Contractors, Trades, and Crafts provided testimony on the proposed measure. King voiced his support, stating that the adoption of nationally recognized consensus-based codes is a crucial step towards aligning the Virgin Islands with industry best standards. King stated that by integrating these widely accepted codes and standards, this would allow the community to benefit from the latest advances in construction technology and safety measures.
Jean- Pierre Oriol, the Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, gave additional testimony supporting the measure. Oriol stated that the Department was aware that code updates are needed so that we may improve code enforcement to build more resiliently. Per Oriol’s testimony, the US Virgin Islands is a participating community for the International Code Council (ICC) and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Area. These programs update after major impact events. After Hurricanes Irma and Maria, FEMA deployed a mitigation assessment team in the territory, which evaluated damages caused by the storms. This team identified successful and unsuccessful construction practices. Oriol voiced his support for the measure, stating that it was important to adopt a higher wind standard, due to changing climates.
Graciela Rivera, Territorial Hazard Mitigation Officer, testified about the proposed measure. Rivera stated that stronger building codes minimize the economic impact of disasters by limiting the destruction of properties and critical infrastructure. Rivera mentioned the Mitigation Assessment Report Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the US Virgin Islands, released in September 2018. This report found that local building codes did not align with the then recently adopted International Building Codes. This then resulted in a recommendation to coordinate policies, strengthen design procedures, and implement systems of review and enforcement. Additionally, according to this report, homes that were repaired under the House Protection Roofing program after Hurricane Marilyn in 1995, received little to no damage during the 2017 hurricanes. These homes were repaired using the most recent building codes at that time. Rivera reiterated that the adoption of the building codes to match the International Building Code would provide great assistance to improve infrastructure in the US Virgin Islands.

The proposed measure was voted upon favorably.

Additionally, in Block 2, lawmakers considered Bill No. 35-0202, an act amending Title 29, Chapter 3 of the Virgin Islands Code to authorize the Historic Preservation Commission to relax certain restrictions as it relates to conservation and preservation of historic and cultural assets in the historic downtown districts of Christiansted, Frederiksted, Charlotte Amalie, and Cruz Bay. The measure was sponsored by Senator Kenneth L. Gittens. Gittens stated that no one could argue that there was a serious problem with dilapidated buildings in the community. He stated that these buildings were breeding grounds for rodents and criminal activity. Gittens stated that the measure was the first step in the process.

John Woods, President of the St. Thomas- St. John Chamber of Commerce provided testimony. Woods stated that from a regulatory point of view, the bill would be difficult to carry out on the part of the Historic Preservation Commission and the Board of Land Use Blue and Appeals. Woods stated that if the bill were to move forward, it should include measures of structural evaluation, and return on investment, to be included in any presentation to the HPC. Woods stated that this could be used as the basis of approval or demolition and reconstruction, which requires upgrades of structural and fire resistive integrity to be permitted. Woods stated removing the significance of historical elements compromises what is unique about the towns.

April Newland, Chair of the Historic Preservation Task Force delivered additional testimony. Newland applauded the attempts to relax stringent requirements. She said that the many restrictions have discouraged local and stateside buyers from purchasing and renovating these properties. Newland welcomed the measure, stating that if the restrictions were lifted, it would allow faster preservation and rehabilitation of historic properties.
Commissioner Jean Pierre Oriol mentioned that over 96% of applicants to the HPC were approved, so he was unsure as to how the Commission was restrictive. Sean Krigger, the Deputy State Historical Preservation Officer, voiced additional concern, stating that most of the applicants to the HPC did not have the proper funding to fund improvements.

Shomari Moorehead, President of Our Town Frederiksted delivered additional testimony. Moorehead questioned the measure, stating that while the intention of the bill was good, he could not endorse the bill, stating it was vague. He stated that the current version of the bill fails to adequately protect the town and broader community. He voiced concern with relying on the Historic Preservation Society to identify structures to be preserved, stating it created an arbitrary process. Moorehead stated that modifications without approval would suggest that building permits should be relaxed without public outreach would be problematic. Also, Moorehead stated that as it pertains to dangerous structures, property owners should be allowed to demolish and rebuild as needed, while preserving its architectural style and character of the surrounding area.

Senator Potter voiced the need to act as it pertains to the status of Downtown districts. “We all agree something is wrong: the Downtown district is in shambles.” Potter voiced the need for all parties to come to a compromise.
After much deliberation, the proposed measure was held in Committee at the call of the chair.
Senators present at today’s committee hearing included Milton E. Potter, Diane T. Capehart, Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Alma Francis Heyliger, Ray Fonseca, Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Kenneth L. Gittens, Marise C. James, Franklin D. Johnson, and Carla J. Joseph.

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