When I first arrived on island years ago people would joke that a “St. John environmentalist was someone that had built their home last year,” but that is tame as compared to the radical anti-development vehemence that is emerging on our island today. Of course a backlash to the illegal development sponsored by our senate was predictable but emotions are running hot and outspoken activists now appear to be fighting to stop all construction at whatever environmental, economic, and social costs.
Though there may have been good intentions, the unfortunate casualties of this recent rhetoric are the truth, the legal rights of land ownership, and the possibility of considering any alternative to typical subdivisions which disrupt a majority of the natural land and have unnecessary adverse environmental impacts. As we all feel the stress of more development and lagging infrastructure, we need to work together, be creative with possibilities, and consider all feasible solutions before the opportunity is lost.
Don’t get me wrong, I am the first to support the National Park and want to protect the beautiful natural resources of this island, but there must be a reasonable balance as we wrestle with the growth of our community. Everyone would prefer if their neighbors never built, but we must acknowledge our neighbor’s wish and right to build their home on their land.
As a licensed architect, I have sought to find a balance between these two goals so have been very vocal against code violations and have offered design alternatives to protect more of our environment. But I draw the line when this discussion on development degenerates into mud-slinging and the suggestion that a new vague standard of approval should replace existing laws and our deeds. If there are those who would like to change the laws that govern land development to match their own ideas of “appropriateness,” the process is political and any proposed changes to govern land use must be first approved by the legislature. Until that time when new laws may be enacted, it is only the existing laws and codes that can legally be enforced, and not minority opinions.
It is this obvious hypocrisy that is frustrating and which shall weaken this anti-development cause. To inaccurately criticize and publicly condemn a proposal without basis (while ignoring one’s own problems) is insincere but to ignore the law and the facts simply to incite public anxiety would be slanderous. Any land owner interested in finding new and better approaches to construction will shy away from such unfair public scrutiny to avoid these attacks and maintain the status quo that is failing us now.
Who knows where these people received the moral authority to preach to us, but I strongly resist the idea that we should give up our land rights and reasonable expectations so we can be judged under their selective and inconsistent guidelines. Until each of these vocal critics decides to offer their own properties for the same subjective review and arbitrary approval, or decides to donate their land to preservation, their empty claims are less than credible.
No matter how worthy their intentions, I am opposed to a few radical “preservationists” redefining the legal property rights for all undeveloped land on St. John and distracting us from working towards an improved awareness of the law, better development practices, and a greater sensitivity to our environment. As individuals we all have opinions and ideas but as a community it is to our mutual benefit to respect these and cooperate to find an intelligent compromise.
Yes, I could support the idea of all of St. John falling under CZM review and restricted unlimited building heights but, before I give up my land as “unbuildable” or a project as “inappropriate,” I will continue to protect the natural environment and shall expect that only the law shall be enforced.
While I can only assume that I am not alone in trying to preserve the natural beauty while building here, I know that many others will defy any attempt to indiscriminately limit their rights in the name of pseudo-preservation. The stakes are high and we may be becoming more divided but I hope that impartial leadership from DPNR and our governor shall calm the debate and bring about a reasonable conclusion.
A. Michael Milne, AIA, barefoot architect, inc.