After decades of attempts, tried and failed, a new effort to develop a comprehensive land and water use plan for the territory should take roughly 18 months, starting with a series of community forums that kicked off to a packed house on St. Thomas Tuesday night that are designed to gather residents’ input on what can be preserved, strengthened or transformed within each unique island community.
Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol said the territory is in a unique position, with billions in federal dollars available, to help “reshape what the future looks like.” This includes the protection of land and water resources, among other things, and defining what’s necessary to secure the longevity of those resources, he shared with the crowd gathered at the department’s offices in Estate Tutu.
For the past four months, consultant Horsley Witten Group has been gathering data culled from previous plans, along with existing maps and policies, but team lead Nate Kelly said the time had come to step forward and engage residents who can contribute to a “shared vision” of what new development looks like, how to safeguard environmentally sensitive areas, and what the territory needs in terms of infrastructure or policy that can also help close some glaring equity and access gaps.
Tuesday’s session enabled attendees to break off into discussion groups to begin the dialogue, but beforehand, Kelly encouraged all to look “at the big picture.”
“This plan sets the framework, builds the systems, and sets the priorities for how we work going forward,” he said. “Without a plan, we’re always putting fires out because we can never get ahead. Now, we have to look at how we come up with something that is systematic, efficient and smart — and considers multiple needs and perspectives.”
Oriol added that his vision is to develop one comprehensive document but with “different chapters” that puts more focus on each island, cutting out the opportunity for a potential back and forth about whether what’s included in the plan should be used for all.
Based on the group discussions Tuesday, individual needs and concerns for St. Thomas residents included the need to protect and preserve sacred spaces, opportunities for housing and development, public access to beaches and to facilities or infrastructure in more remote areas, and the vitality of marine and land resources.
Asked what could be strengthened, many groups cited public policy and laws that discourage spot rezonings, along with enforcement of those laws, and maximizing the use of resources — like energy tax credits — that can help boost sustainable building and development. Our communities can further be “transformed” by concerted efforts to promote recycling and environmental stewardship, adding more sidewalk space to encourage walkability and healthy living practices, and looking at piloting greener housing communities that are energy efficient and encourage mixed-use development, attendees said.
Residents unable to attend the session can still provide their input by logging into https://www.planusvi.com/.
Once this series of forums is complete, Kelly said more intensive charettes are planned for the summer, where a series of guiding principles and value statements can be developed. In the fall, he added, more focus will be put into developing policies, followed by the actual implementation and strategy.
“We’re going to do it right — we’re not going to bind ourselves to specific timeframes at the risk of missing something important,” he said. “Right now, we’re in the key issues phase where we’re listening to public input and identifying what’s important to each island.”
Additional town halls are planned for:
- Wednesday, March 1 from noon to 2 p.m. at DPNR’s Offices at the Viya building in Estate Tutu
- Thursday, March 2 from 5:30–7:30 p.m. at the Legislative Annex in Cruz Bay
- Friday, March 3 from noon to 2 p.m. at the Sprung Complex in Coral Bay
- Tuesday, March 7 from 5:30–7:30 p.m. at the University of the Virgin Islands Great Hall
- Wednesday, March 8 from noon to 2 p.m. at the University of the Virgin Islands Great Hall