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Blackbeard’s Castle Renovation: Owner’s Admission Highlights Oversight Challenges in USVI

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The historic landmark, Blackbeard’s Castle in St. Thomas, USVI, stands as a testament to both heritage and the challenges of preservation amid modernization.

In a revealing exchange during the latest St. Thomas/St. John Historical Preservation Committee meeting, frustrations bubbled to the surface over the cavalier attitude exhibited by the team renovating Blackbeard’s Castle, a landmark fraught with historical significance. Property owner Steve Sigler was in the hot seat, requesting retroactive approval for a series of alterations already completed without prior consent, including a new roof and an ADA-compliant ramp.

Sigler openly acknowledged his misjudgment, revealing he had been under the impression that the Virgin Islands’ regulatory environment was more forgiving. “I was misled to believe that oversight was minimal here, leading me to proceed with changes without the necessary approvals,” he conceded, stressing his realization of the committee’s diligence.

This incident is not the committee’s first encounter with projects advancing without the requisite permissions. Committee Chair Akil Peterson expressed a repeated concern over such practices, highlighting a pattern of disregard for the established approval process.

The situation took a turn when Sigler likened his predicament to that of a character from popular culture, ensnared in a web of island-life challenges, stressing the financial stakes involved in the renovation project. His candid admission of having been swayed by informal assurances rather than seeking formal permissions sparked a stern rebuke from Peterson, who lamented the wasted efforts in facilitating a smoother process for Sigler’s project.

The dialogue further unveiled that Sigler was not fully informed about the property’s historical significance and regulatory requirements. He expressed regret over his assumptions regarding aesthetic changes and pledged to align more closely with the committee’s guidance moving forward.

Committee member Enrique Rodriguez voiced disappointment upon discovering unapproved windows already on the property, a move that exemplified the recurring theme of preemptive action without official sanction. The committee was firm in its stance of preserving the integrity of historical sites while acknowledging the economic potential of such endeavors.

In an effort to rectify the situation, the committee suggested halting further work until a comprehensive strategy was formulated, emphasizing the importance of a collaborative approach to ensure both preservation and progress. Acknowledging Sigler’s openness about his mistakes, the committee expressed a willingness to work closely with him, contingent on strict adherence to preservation laws and proper communication channels.

The meeting concluded with conditional approvals for some of the completed work, underscoring the committee’s commitment to balancing historical integrity with developmental aspirations. The episode serves as a cautionary tale about the importance of adherence to regulatory frameworks, especially in contexts rich with cultural and historical heritage.

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VIHFA Submits Finalized Amendment to Mitigation Action Plan for HUD Review

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The Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority (VIHFA) has officially submitted its finalized Second Substantial Amendment to the Mitigation Action Plan to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for review. This amendment, shaped by extensive community feedback from recent public meetings and online forums, is expected to receive a response from HUD by July 2024.

“We are deeply grateful to the Virgin Islands community for their active participation in shaping this plan,” said Dayna Clendinen, VIHFA Chief Disaster Recovery Officer. “By prioritizing and investing in critical infrastructure projects, workforce development, small business growth, and economic stabilization initiatives, we can build a more resilient Virgin Islands. This comprehensive approach strengthens our communities, equips them to withstand future storms, reduces environmental impact, and fosters a thriving future for everyone.”

Key Highlights of the Second Substantial Amendment

Increased Funding for Infrastructure: The amendment increases funding for Infrastructure and Public Facilities from $363 million to $423 million. This additional support will finance the second phase of the Veterans Drive Improvement Project, which includes stormwater improvements, minimized erosion and pollution, and enhanced pedestrian mobility and safety.

Enhanced Economic Resilience Programs: Two new programs have been introduced to bolster economic resilience and revitalization:

  • Entrepreneurship Resilience and Innovation Program: Funded at $8 million, this program offers additional support for small businesses.
  • Workforce Development Mitigation Program: Also funded at $8 million, this program focuses on critical local training initiatives.

For more details, the finalized Second Amendment to the Mitigation Action Plan can be viewed on the VIHFA website.

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Lawmakers Approve Leases for Sejah Farm and Rumina Construction, Bolstering Local Economic Growth

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The Senate Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance has approved two lease agreements of government-owned lands to support a local farm and a construction company, fostering economic development in the Virgin Islands. The bills now await approval from the 35th Legislature and Governor Albert Bryan.

Sejah Farm Lease

Bill No. 35-0261 authorizes a lease between the Government of the Virgin Islands and Yvette and Dale Brown, owners of Sejah Farm of the Virgin Islands. The 15-acre property, located at Plot No. 9-P Estate VICORP Lands, Prince Quarter, St. Croix, will be used for farming and related activities.

Senator Marvin Blyden, presenting the bill, emphasized the importance of the twenty-year lease for the farm’s ongoing livestock and crop production. Sejah Farm operates an agricultural learning center, teaching animal husbandry, soil improvement, and value-added production. The annual rent for the property is set at $225.69.

Mrs. Brown outlined the farm’s use of the property, which includes livestock grazing, organic crop production, and poultry, meat, and egg production. The farm supplies fresh meat and vegetables to local and overseas markets, focusing on bolstering the territory’s agricultural sector.

Rumina Construction Lease

Bill No. 35-0255 details a multi-year lease agreement with Rumina Construction, LLC, for land at Submarine Base, No. 6 Southside Quarter, St. Thomas. The lease allows the company to use the land for an equipment and material storage depot yard, construction company office, and related purposes. Senator Blyden noted that the lease supports a local business that provides essential services to the community.

Rumina Construction, involved in several hurricane recovery projects, employs twelve Virgin Islanders. Franklin Victor, the company’s owner, reported significant investments in property improvements, totaling nearly $100,000 since the original lease.

The bills will proceed to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

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Debate on Sidewalk Bar Proposal Ignites at Historical Preservation Meeting

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The St. Thomas-St. John Historical Preservation Society convened on a recent Tuesday to deliberate on several matters, including a contentious proposal for a new sidewalk bar at Meada’s Plaza in Cruz Bay. The plan, which calls for tearing down an existing concrete slab and erecting new structures with subtle lighting and movable seating, sparked a lively debate over aesthetics, public parking, and the complexities of navigating the permitting maze within historic districts.

Sean Krigger, the director of the State Historical Preservation Office, voiced his reservations about the design elements of the proposed bar, particularly the herringbone pattern intended for the perimeter wall. He suggested that the design might clash with the existing architectural style of Cruz Bay, which leans towards a more modern aesthetic. “The flooring might handle the design, but on a wall, it becomes too conspicuous,” Krigger explained. He proposed exploring the use of stone, which is prevalent in the district’s construction.

During the discussions, the perennial issue of parking resurfaced, mirroring concerns raised at a similar meeting of the St. Croix Historic Preservation Committee. Enrique Rodriguez, a committee member, pointed out that the proposed site for the sidewalk bar had been originally designated for parking. The local zoning laws currently do not allow the Historical Preservation Committee (HPC) to waive these parking requirements, a point Krigger emphasized. However, Kurt Marsh, another member, noted that the developers possessed a nearby parking lot that might serve as an alternative parking space, pending approval from planning authorities.

The committee also considered whether to approve the project conditionally, pending the acquisition of all necessary permits. Krigger strongly opposed this, stating, “We should not approve projects that do not fully comply with zoning and building laws.” This sentiment underscored the committee’s commitment to upholding legal standards rigorously, contrasting with the more flexible approaches sometimes observed on other islands.

Architect Clarence Brown expressed frustration with the convoluted permitting process, recounting instances of being shuffled between departments without clear guidance. “It’s baffling that every agency points to another, and yet we’re expected to have all approvals in place before moving forward,” Brown stated.

Ultimately, despite Krigger’s objections, Marsh proposed granting conditional approval, dependent on confirmation of the alternative parking arrangements and necessary adjustments to the design plans. The committee unanimously agreed, marking a significant step forward for the proposed project at 6B Vester Gade in Cruz Bay, St. John, despite the noted challenges and procedural hurdles.

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