IGBA Looks to Future of St. John Development with Principal Planner

Planner Stuart Smith

The Virgin Islands is on the cusp of change, Principal Planner Stuart Smith told the Island Green Builders Association at its Thursday evening, May 27, meeting at The Marketplace.
Smith, who came on board with the Department of Planning and Natural Resources just three and a half months ago, shared how the upcoming Virgin Islands Code revision will help preserve the local environment.

The code will undergo an 18 month long revision period, directed by Rutgers University. Steep slope development, which causes the majority of the Virgin Islands’ runoff issues, is just one of the areas that will be addressed in the new code, explained Smith.

“It’s the number one cause of nonpoint source pollution,” he said. “The current zoning is inadequate at addressing steep slope development.”

One way to address the problems caused by steep slope development is by establishing maximum cut and fill quantities, giving less allowances to steeper properties, Smith added.

Other controls Smith hopes to see implemented in the new code will address waste treatment systems, vegetation and buildable area.

“A lot of people come in and clear cut the entire site because it’s cheapest to develop that way, plus it provides access for construction equipment and a place to store building materials,” said Smith.

The planner hopes the new code will address the practice of clear cutting lots by ensuring property owners only remove vegetation that is absolutely necessary for construction, remove the vegetation in phases, and preserve vegetation around guts.

“Roots soak up moisture in the ground and hold the soil in place,” said Smith. “They keep the soil from slipping and becoming runoff.”

Regulating waste treatment systems can also help protect the environment, according to Smith. Traditional septic systems can cause effluent to run onto neighboring properties, and even into the ocean.

“People put drain fields on unsuitable topography, and all that effluent slides down drain field lines too quickly, then leeches to the surface,” said Smith. “Rainwater can then wash it down to the neighbor’s property or the street. We can control a lot of this with waste treatment system setbacks.”

New setback regulations can also help ensure that new construction fits in aesthetically with other island homes, Smith continued.

“Aesthetics is hard to insert in planning documents, but if we can control the size of structures being built it’s a benefit for everyone,” he said. “We could implement a floor area ratio, where you take the entire square footage of the house and divide it into the area of the property, which would help with grading and scale.”

Smith also hopes the new code will address one issue that often plagues St. John — building height. The new regulations may address building height rather than number of stories.

“Building height is the biggest headache I run into,” said Smith. “One of the most important things we could do is to establish measurable height.”

One of the most important ways to help residents develop responsibly is education, Smith explained. The  planner implored IGBA to help educate those going through the building process on new environmentally friendly technologies.

“Everyone thinks the traditional way is the cheapest, safest, most predictable way to do it,” said Smith. “Most people see dollar signs more than the environmental impact. Organizations like

IGBA can really sit down and walk you through some of the new energy saving environmentally friendly technologies.”

Finally, Smith assured IGBA members that DPNR is in fact user friendly, and encouraged everyone to come to him with any questions or concerns.

“You can bring anything to me,” said Smith. “Even if I can’t get the answer, I’ll try to find it for you.”

DPNR’s St. John office will move this week to the old Head Start building near the library in Cruz Bay. Smith can be reached at  774-3320 ext. 5107, or via email at stuart.smith@dpnr.gov.vi.