Dowe’s Basement Bill “Very Vague,” Not Likely To Pass Through Senate

About a dozen residents filled the Nazareth Lutheran Church Hall on Thursday evening, December 8, to hear about a proposed bill which could be voted on by the V.I. Senate this week.

Bill no. 29-0166, proposed by Senator Carlton Dowe, would allow people with illegal extra space under their residential buildings to enclose the space and rent out the units. The bill has already passed through the Senate Committee on Rules and Judiciary, prompting the Island Green Building Association to host a public forum last week to discuss the bill and its implication.

The concept for the bill — which is seriously flawed and not likely to pass or be enforceable if passed, according to officials — arose from discussions between Dowe and Department of Planning and Natural Resources, explained DPNR’s Coastal and Comprehensive Zone Planning director Stuart Smith.

“The idea for this bill arose from conversations between DPNR and the office of Senator Dowe,” said Smith. “We need to know how many people live in every structure and where these structures are, whether they are legal or not.”

While knowing that many residences in the territory have been built out of code and actually contain more dwellings than legally permitted, DPNR officials were looking for a way to quantify the number of people in a certain building, according to Smith.

“If there is an earthquake or some natural disaster, we need to know how many units are in these structures,” he said. “It could also be important for FEMA and getting grants and funds. We need to know these numbers.”

The idea for establishing an amnesty period was discussed, however, the bill was rushed through the legal process without DPNR having time to thoroughly vet the bill’s language, explained Smith.

“The bill is very vague and we have a number of corrections that need to be made and misnomers to clarify,” said the CCZP director. “The amount of time we were given was no where near what we needed to go through this bill. I was invited to testify on the bill with two day’s notice.”

“This bill does not reflect our concerns and is very vague,” said Smith. “This bill could in no way be passed. There is no reference to the zoning code or the building code.”

In fact, the bill does not mention either the V.I. Zoning Code — which is currently undergoing a multimillion dollar rewrite by Rutgers University consultants and DPNR officials — or the local building code, both of which would be impacted by the passage of Bill No. 29-0166.

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.

Beyond being “vague” the bill would basically create spot-zoning across the territory and in effect change the zoning code, according to Smith.

Any changes to the zoning code require public hearings and public notice, a process through which this bill did not go, Smith added.
“While the intent of the bill makes sense, I can’t wrap my head around the zoning code implications,” said Smith. “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.”

“From DPNR’s perspective, this bill needs a whole lot of work,” Smith said. “This bill as drafted has huge holes in it. This may not be enforceable or legal.”

Senators Craig Barshigner and Jeanette Millin-Young, as well as a representative from Dowe’s office, attended last week’s IGBA meeting.