DeJongh Approves Basement Law and Spells End to St. John Dial-a-Ride

With a few strokes of his pen, Governor John deJongh last week approved a controversial basement legislation and spelled the end of the St. John Dial-a-Ride.

Despite objections from Department of Planning and Natural Resources officials and possible violations of the V.I. Zoning Code, senators passed Bill No. 29-0166 in mid-December and on Thursday night, December 29, deJongh signed it into law.

The bill, sponsored by Senator Carlton Dowe, basically allows homeowners with extra space under their residential buildings to enclose the space and create additional living units.

While the concept for the bill — which arose from discussions between Dowe and DPNR officials — intended to clear a path for illegal dwellings to comply with zoning laws, in its current state the bill remains flawed and will likely be amended, according to DPNR’s Coastal and Comprehensive Zone Planning director Stuart Smith.

“The bill gives us 60 days to develop a program with rules and regulations and that is where the details will have to hashed out,” said Smith. “We won’t allow anything to happen that goes against the health and safety of the community. We’re working with it as it is and we’ll probably have to ask for some amendments to make it legally binding.”

It is not uncommon for DPNR officials to create program procedures after a bill has been signed into law, Smith added.

“A lot of times bills are passed and we have to make the rules and regulations to implement them; that is not uncommon,” he said. “For this bill, a lot of things have to be worked out as far as how this program will work. Through the drafting of those procedures and regulations, that’s where we’ll see the amendments which have to made to the bill itself.”

“We’ll send those back to the senators and ask them to help make some corrections to make this a legal program,” said Smith.

The bill, as written, allows for a two-year amnesty period for all existing structures — with proper septic and parking requirements — with open space underneath to be filled in and the owners to be cleared of all fines and penalties for building illegally.

“No later than 60 days after the passage of this Act, the Commissioner of DPNR shall establish an amnesty program for a period of two years, during which all fines and penalties on building code violations for residential property owners who have made additional improvements or alterations outside the permitted scope to a residential building or structure without prior approval or requisite permits required from DPNR will be waived,” according to the bill.

Allowing residents to add units to their residential buildings, however, could change one’s zone, which would alter the V.I. Zoning Code and essentially create spot zoning across the territory. All alterations to the zoning code require public notice and public meetings, which could make the law unenforceable, Smith said a December Island Green Building Association meeting on St. John.

“While the intent of the bill makes sense, I can’t wrap my head around the zoning code implications,” said Smith at the December meeting. “The zoning code would have to be amended — I see about 12 zoning code violations in this bill. Then once you talk about amending the zoning code, it’s impossible to do that without giving public notice and having public hearings.”

Smith anticipated that amendments would have to be added to the bill before it can be enforced, explained the CZZP director.

“We’ll have to revisit the bill in its current form and make sure that what we’re doing is right in the long term,” said Smith. “We don’t want to do something that we look back on in 10 years and regret.”

DeJongh line-item vetoed only one measure in the bills passed by the V.I. Legislature in mid-December, a provision to provide critical funding for the St. John Dial-a-Ride.

More than 20 St. John senior citizens, and St. John Community Foundation executive director Celia Kalousek, traveled to St. Thomas on December 15 to explain to senators the importance of the island’s Dial-a-Ride program to seniors and disabled residents. The senators heard and approved a measure to add $56,000 to the program’s operating budget, which is coordinated by SJCF.

Citing the inability of the General Fund to cover the appropriation, deJongh vetoed the amendment last week.

The blow to the Dial-a-Ride program comes after the program’s funding was already cut in half by the Department of Human Services. If no additional funding is found, the program will cease at the end of February, explained Kalousek.