Crucians to get say on historic preservation bill
Published: August 2, 2012
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ST. THOMAS - After hours of testimony Wednesday, members of the Senate Planning and Environmental Protection Committee voted to hold a bill to save historic buildings so that it can be heard on St. Croix as well.
At the end of the hearing, committee chairman and the bill's sponsor Sen. Louis Hill said he would take all the recommendations and suggestions made and draft amendments to the bill before scheduling the next hearing on St. Croix.
The bill being considered, the Antiquities Preservation and Historic Properties Act, lays out new regulations designed to preserve and protect the territory's cultural and historical structures. It contains penalties and incentives to get property owners to repair, maintain and rehabilitate historic buildings in the towns of Charlotte Amalie, Frederiksted, and Christiansted.
Several senators and testifiers said they have heard people on the radio expressing fear that the legislation will lead to the government taking people's property.
Hill said that is a misconception.
While the bill does give the government the ability to purchase a historic property, it would only be after all efforts by the State Historic Preservation Office and the Historic Preservation Commission to preserve the building fails, and government ownership is determined to be in the public's best interest. However, the property could only be purchased if the government can prove that it has enough money to complete the rehabilitation within an 18-month period.
"This bill and this initiative, the last desire I have is to take people's property," Hill said. "That is not the intent of the bill at all."
Under the proposed legislation, owners of historic buildings would be mandated to keep properties in good repair or face steep penalties. Civil penalties for violating the measure could be as high as $1,000 a day for commercial or mixed-use buildings and up to $500 a day for residential properties.
The bill allows exemptions for owners who can prove they cannot comply for financial reasons.
The bill also includes a number of incentives and tax breaks:
- An owner of a residential historic property - that they live in - can get 10 years of property tax exemptions or tax exemptions equal to the cost of the rehabilitation.
- The owner of an income-producing historical property can get 10 years of property tax exemptions or a tax credit that equals half of the cost of rehabilitation.
- Owners investing more than $500,000 in a historic property can get 25 years of property tax exemptions.
The chief concern among the many testifiers Wednesday was a lack of funding in the bill.
The proposed legislation authorizes the State Historic Preservation Office to establish the Historic Preservation Grant Program, to award grants for building repairs to those who need financial assistance, but it does not identify any funding source for the program.
LaVaughn Belle, who is currently renovating two historic properties in Christiansted, said the experience has been hard, but rewarding. She said more financial help is needed for people like her, who want to save the rich history of the islands.
"I looked for grants and could not find any that we qualified for, including the famed 'Scrape, Paint and Rejuvenate Program' run through the St. Croix Foundation. The income limits are too low and the grant eligibility required that the space be occupied," Belle said.
More education also is needed, she said. Too many contractors and construction workers do not know how to build in the historic styles and are not familiar with the specialized materials needed to maintain historic structures. Several contractors told Belle to just "push down" the little decrepit shack she owns on East Street in the Free Gut area, she said. The building first was owned by Elizabeth Gabriel, a woman who survived the middle passage, survived slavery and once free, was able to own property, Belle said.
That kind of history should be treasured, not torn down, she said.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone said he and Sen. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly were discussing the funding question and suggested that a portion of the rum revenues could be used for a grant and loan program to restore historic properties.
"Let the rum money work for the people," Malone said.
Hill said he loved the idea and would include it in an amendment to the bill.
A study done by the University of the Virgin Islands found 2,764 structures - not all of which are considered historic - in the territory's three historic districts. About 451 of the properties were in fair to poor condition, and 20 percent of those structures were considered historic buildings, according to the study.
All the people who testified at Wednesday's hearing agreed that something needs to happen to bring the issue of the territory's crumbling towns to the forefront.
Vernon Araujo, the director of development of Family Resource Center, said the nonprofit shelter and counseling center is located on Bunker Hill, where many buildings around the center are abandoned, which has a negative impact on the neighborhood and the center's clientele. In the one year that he has worked at the center, Araujo said, he has witnessed fires, drug use and violent crime in and around the dilapidated and abandoned buildings.
"It really is a dangerous situation that needs to have light shed on it and be amended quickly," he said.
Angela Rawlins, who has operated Bunker Hill Hotel for 30 years, said she struggles with the location of her business. She thanked the Realtors and community activists who have pushed for the bill's passage for trying to address the "900-pound gorilla."
She said it is demoralizing when visitors come to her hotel and do not want to stay in such a run-down neighborhood or ask her why the area looks the way it does.
"So I am really one that would stand to gain by this bill going through," Rawlins said.
She said she does not understand some of the push back the legislation has gotten from the community. Why argue about trying to clean up the territory's towns, she asked.
"It speaks of a lack of pride," she said. "I am so glad that we are addressing the situation."
Rawlins suggested that plaques be attached to many of the historic buildings in the towns, pointing out the town's first dentist office, or first bank. Visitors could take walking tours and learn a lot about the Virgin Islands and its history, she said.
"It's so rich in history, and still we just sit there and let it decay and go down in ruins and all that history is lost," Rawlins said.
Rivera-O'Reilly said other jurisdictions have come up with numerous creative solutions to similar problems. In some states, instead of auctioning off properties with delinquent taxes, the government will rehabilitate the property and sell it. The profits would then go into a fund to give grants and loans to owners trying to fix up their own properties, she said. Other towns and cities have essentially turned themselves into a senior living community, which brings in businesses and residents, Rivera-O'Reilly said.
"We really are poised to do something great with our downtown districts," she said. "But the government has to be a partner, and we have to provide the monies to those who can't afford it."
- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email email@example.com.