Gas Station Moratorium Bill Passes Senate

Sen. Janelle Sarauw speaks at a previous hearing. (Photo by Barry Leerdam)

Sen. Janelle Sarauw scored a victory on Wednesday with the passage of her bill that will place a 5-year moratorium on new gas stations in the U.S. Virgin Islands if it is signed into law.

Bill 33-0300 passed unanimously in the final session of the 33rd Legislature, although Sarauw was unable to attend herself as she currently is away helping her mother recover from surgery.

“It is my hope that this bill will lead to a better planning process,” Sarauw said via email on Thursday.

While the bill will temporarily halt the proliferation of gas stations in the territory – an issue particularly on St. Thomas and St. Croix – its overarching goal is the development of a comprehensive land and water use plan for the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Absent a comp plan, as they are commonly called, the territory has taken a “spot zoning” approach to development that on St. Thomas has led to one gas station per square mile, said Sarauw, who held a virtual town hall on Monday to explain the bill.

The lack of a plan, or a planning board, also means that permitting decisions end up before the Senate – a situation ripe for corruption and mistakes, Sarauw told the more than 1,700 people who watched her town hall. “We’re stepping into a lane we shouldn’t be in,” she said. “We’re not the experts in zoning.”

Ideally, that should be the role of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, said Sarauw, which is why the moratorium is contingent on a feasibility study by DPNR to include public input and analysis of the geographical landscape, social and public welfare, environmental impacts and the economy.

The study findings are required to be reported to the Legislature six months prior to the moratorium ending. Absent that, the ban will continue according to amendments to the bill, which was first introduced in the 32nd Legislature but failed.

“In the absence of a comprehensive land and water use plan, the bill is a stopgap measure on gas stations,” Sarauw said Thursday. “We all wish that a comprehensive land and water use plan was done, but that is the role of DPNR. They’re the subject matter experts to execute the plan and for years they have fallen short,” she said.

The bill’s passage comes as DPNR is considering seven more applications for gas stations – three on St. Croix and four on St. Thomas. Another was recently permitted and is under construction at the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Nadir.

“I don’t believe my colleagues objected this time because public pressure was mounting,” said Sarauw of the bill’s unanimous support this go-around. “In light of the new permits that recently became public, I believe the situation then became real and they made the right decision.”

The bill also tackles the proliferation of gas stations – currently there are 32 on St. Thomas, three on St. John and 32 on St. Croix – by creating a new zoning category under the V.I. Code that will eliminate the loophole that has allowed for their growth. The only exception is if a business wants to revive one of the old, abandoned service stations that dot the islands.

Essentially, the bill excludes gas stations from being a “customary accessory” in 29 V.I. Code 233, which allowed their development along with convenience store or laundromat permits, for example. Now there will be a separate Zone G – Gas Stations, in 29 V.I. Code 228 and 229, to include new developments that are solely service stations.

According to the results of a DPNR survey earlier this year, another by Sarauw ahead of the vote on the bill, and a petition launched by St. Thomas activist Brigitte Berry, public support for the moratorium is strong.

Berry’s petition has garnered more than 1,100 signatures, DPNR had 191 responses, and Sarauw 356. The majority of respondents told Sarauw they would rather see more parks, recreation and activities for children. The DPNR survey showed that 111 people, or 58.1 percent of respondents, are concerned about the density of gas stations in the territory.

Comments on Berry’s petition bear out those concerns. “There is a gas station on just about every corner of this island! In some cases, there are 2-3 just a few feet from each other! Even Stevie Wonder can see that someone’s pocket is getting lined and consideration for safety in our community no longer exists!” said one signer, echoing the sentiments of many others.

Berry said in an interview Tuesday that her goal is not to prevent any new gas stations, but to have a more measured approach to their approval and development, so that the territory is not left with a mess to clean up when they fail because there are too many of them.

“I was really specific in the wording, because some people are like, no more gas stations, period. I really don’t know that that is the answer,” said Berry. “Coral Bay really needs one. They had one. I would love to see somebody take that over and put a gas station out there. But all of them in East End? Please.”

While she did not start the petition with a specific end-game in mind, “the data is going to be available. If you’re starting a business, and you’re looking at a gas station, go ahead and use it. I hope DPNR looks at it. I hope our lawmakers are looking at it,” said Berry, who has lent her support to past environmental causes such as the plastic straw ban and said that, by comparison, support for a gas station moratorium has been strong across all demographics.

“Usually when I do environmental-based causes in the Virgin Islands, say like the anti-straw thing, I really don’t get as much local West Indian support behind it. They care about the environment, but they’re also, you know, ‘I have bigger things to worry about,’” said Berry. “But this one, it’s pretty across the board that, we’re good, we don’t need any more gas stations. And that is actually one of the coolest things I’ve noticed about this, versus other efforts I’ve been involved in.”

The survey responses confirm that “we are just not making the best use of our land,” said Sarauw at her town hall. “The little bit of land that we have, we are not using it in a way that benefits the masses. We can’t find a place for a school. We can’t find space for basic necessities,” she said.

“We live on four dots in the Caribbean. Comprehensive land and water use is imperative. It is life or death,” said Sarauw.