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Revisiting the Gifft Hill Container Apartment Plan: Lawmakers Rally Behind Revised Proposal

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Former Senator Roosevelt David presents on behalf of Gifft Hill Land LLC during Thursday’s legislative hearing. Courtesy of V.I. Legislature.

The legislative session on Wednesday delved into three significant rezoning and variance requests within the St. Thomas-St. John district, focusing on infrastructural development.

One notable proposal, Bill 35-0137, involved Ari Goldschneider’s company, Gifft Hill Land LLC. The company sought a variance to categorize individual bedroom rentals under the “lodging/rooming house” designation on land near the Gifft Hill School in Cruz Bay, St. John. Originally, Goldschneider requested a shift from R-2, Residential Low Density to R-4, Residential Medium Density. This change would have allowed the construction of six residential buildings with a total of 74 ensuite bedrooms and shared communal spaces.

The initial proposal was met with significant resistance, as over 75 community members voiced opposition during a public meeting, citing concerns about potential overcrowding, aesthetic degradation due to the use of shipping containers, and the impact on the neighboring school. Territorial Planner Leia LaPlace-Matthew documented 47 distinct objections raised against the initial plan.

In response, a revised proposal was presented during the Committee of the Whole on April 17. Rather than a permanent rezoning, the new request sought a lease variance within the existing R-2 classification. Represented by Roosevelt David, Gifft Hill Land LLC proposed constructing two container buildings housing 24 ensuite units. This revision aimed to facilitate room rentals directly to individuals, bypassing the master lease requirement of the R-2 category.

Leia LaPlace-Matthew emphasized the urgency of addressing the housing crisis, noting national calls for zoning reform to mitigate housing shortages. Despite this, several lawmakers, including Senator Alma Francis-Heyliger, argued that the proposed $1,500 monthly rent did not qualify as affordable housing, likening it to a “high-priced boarding house.”

Nevertheless, the revised proposal garnered support for potentially alleviating housing shortages for specific demographics such as first responders, nurses, teachers, and service industry workers. Senator Samuel Carrion supported the use of shipping containers for their robustness and suitability for innovative housing solutions, especially in hurricane-prone areas.

Despite ongoing public opposition, Senator Donna Frett-Gregory expressed the need for balanced consideration in project opposition. Concerns were also raised about the lack of family-oriented housing options in St. John. Senator Angel Bolques expressed his vigilance over maintaining rental affordability, hinting at strict oversight if the developers faltered.

Other senators suggested aesthetic enhancements to the container buildings to improve their visual appeal. Senator Novelle Francis hinted that some resistance might be motivated by competitors desiring to undertake similar projects.

Senator Franklin Johnson remained cautious, reserving his support until he could review detailed architectural plans. If the variance is not approved, Goldschneider indicated a fallback option to enter a master lease with entities like Pafford, which have shown interest in renting the buildings for staff accommodations.

Parallel to this, the session also saw positive responses to two other bills. Bill 35-0241, championed by Dionne Carty Jackson, aims to transform a residential property in Kings Quarter, St. Thomas, into a family-run restaurant and fruit bar. Similarly, Bill 35-0256 proposed rezoning a parcel in Cruz Bay to public use for a new Department of Public Works maintenance building.

All three legislative measures are slated for a vote in the upcoming legislative session, highlighting a pivotal moment for development and zoning in the region.

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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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