Senate Committee Advances Conservationists, Leases, And Law Changes

The Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Diane Capehart, approved several measures to the Committee of the Whole Thursday. (Screenshot from V.I. Legislature Facebook live stream)

A busy Senate meeting Thursday ended with the unopposed advancement of two nominations to environmental conservation posts, a maritime industry scholarship, changes to unemployment benefits, leases for agriculture, cultural heritage, and St. Thomas Rescue, and a proposed law specifically outlawing so-called revenge porn. All the bills were sent to the full Senate for a final vote after Rules and Judiciary Committee approval.

Carlos Robles and Nathaniel Olive, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s nominees to the Virgin Islands Conservation District Board, told the committee of their advocacy on behalf of the Virgin Islands’ natural resources. Protecting reefs and farmland starts with a general understanding of the natural environment’s importance, they said. Properly maintained soil, trees, and thoughtful land use lead to adequate groundwater — facts that both industrial site managers and individual homeowners should take to heart, they said. It’s also vital to combat the forces of climate change — rain storms, drought, and more.

Both positions on the board are unpaid.

Olive, the Frederiksted-based president of the Virgin Islands Farmers Alliance with a Ph.D. in education, said he approached farming as a “productive tool for regenerative conservation.” He hoped to teach both adults and the next generation of Virgin Islanders about the real-world importance of conservation-related decisions.

“I believe, and have seen with my own eyes, that not only can we return to a more healthy and inspiring natural environment, but we can do so while making money and feeding our children the best foods possible,” Olive said.

Robles, the Virgin Islands Agriculture Department commissioner from 2015 to 2019, said leaders should use every opportunity to spread the word about the need for conservation to combat environmental degradation. While some of the science was complex, he urged the message should be conveyed as simply as possible, “Sesame Street style.”

He also recalled how his participation in the Virgin Islands Advocated Youth Conservation Core opened his eyes to land and water use issues. Robles said the Core’s return would be a net positive.

“It was an ideal time for me to get involved in the natural resources of the territory,” Robles said of his youth.

After approving the nominations, the committee gave the nod to three leases: a Sub Base home for the long-wandering St. Thomas Rescue organization, the Church Street, Christiansted home of the Virgin Islands Architecture Center for Built Heritage, and 15 acres of unimproved St. Croix land for James O. Gaston to farm.

The committee approved a $10,000 annual scholarship for young Virgin Islanders wanting to train to work in the maritime industry. It also approved a change to building regulations meant to increase resistance to wind storms and gave a thumbs-up to a plan to reduce the amount of time — but not the amount of money — a person gets on unemployment insurance.

The committee also green-lit a proposed law outlawing non-consensual dissemination of private sexually explicit images for the purpose of harassment, intimidation, coercion, or to inflict emotional, financial, or physical harm. The so-called revenge porn bill specifically defines the types of images and circumstances it is meant to ban without the permission of the person photographed, but proving the sharer’s intent may be more difficult. The proposed fine for first time offenders would be a maximum $5,000 and a year in prison, and a maximum of $10,000 and five years in prison for repeat offenders.

Rhode Island and Arizona have had similar restrictions on sharing nude photos without the participant’s consent struck down or failed to become law because they infringe on First Amendment rights.