Building Height Dominates Code Revision Discussion at August 11 Meeting

Stuart Meck of Rutgers University discusses the framework for revisions to the V.I. Development Code at a Thursday, August 11, meeting at the Nazareth Lutheran Church.

Perhaps still troubled by multi-story developments that have gone awry, St. John residents zeroed in on building height during the Thursday, August 11, discussion on the second module of U.S. Virgin Islands Development Code revisions.

Planning consultant Jim Duncan of Duncan Associates and Stuart Meck of Rutgers University, which has been tasked with overhauling the Virgin Islands’ nearly 40-year-old building code, presented the option of limiting building height by feet rather than by stories.

“Most codes use feet rather than stories,” said Duncan. “This prevents creative architects from implementing things like mezzanines. Height is the real issue.”

Deciding on a procedure for measuring building height, however, could be tenuous thanks to the V.I.’s steep, hilly terrain.

“You could have a building that’s 38 feet up but still below the upper road,” said Andrew Penn.

“You all are very unique,” Duncan agreed. “The code needs to be written for what you think you can build.”

Duncan and Meck proposed that cisterns will be excluded from building height, which will be measured from the lowest point where the building meets existing grade to the top of the building’s roof. The duo said that aside from enforcement, height has been the number one building issue cited by V.I. residents.

“I’m 100 percent with them on the fact that we have to get away from stories,” said Department of Planning and Natural Resources Division of Comprehensive and Coastal Zone Planning Director Stuart Smith. “It taxes our resources and has put us in legal battles.”

St. John architect Rob Crane offered his thoughts on the height issue.

“It seems you could circumvent this problem with both a habitable floor count and a height limit,” said Crane. “I’m working on a one-story house on the East End where the back side is buried 10 feet, and on the downhill side it’s 20 feet high plus the roof. It’s really hard.”

The other issue raised by several of the approximately 10 residents who attended the public meeting was Meck and Duncan’s proposal that accessory buildings, air conditioning units, balconies, cisterns, porches, stairs and pools be allowed within a property’s setback.

“I think you should take swimming pools and cisterns off that list right off the bat,” said Crane. “I’m working on two houses in Great Cruz Bay which are both built right to the setbacks. In your interpretation, I could take their two decks and join them.”

Meck and Duncan toured the islands in December, looking at different uses and measuring existing buildings to see how they fit in to the current code. The duo is part of a team that has been working on revamping the V.I. building code since August 2010. The module presented at the August 11 meeting is the second of an estimated six modules that will be presented to the public before going to the V.I. Senate for approval.

St. John residents are urged to review the code revisions at and submit comments to Smith at 774-3320 or