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The new zoning plan : encouraging growth and limiting development.

It’s a touchy subject. That’s why it’s no surprise that it took the better part of a year for the modified version of the island’s zoning plan to be made public. Specifically, this document, (in French, la carte d’urbanisme) is a reference that was instituted by the local zoning code. It maps out the entire land surface of the island into color-coded blocks of buildable and non-buildable zones. Once adopted, all decisions regarding what gets built and where will be determined by the zoning plan and the current zoning legislation. A rough draft of the plan was first made public in July, 2009. After its publication, approximately 500 complaints were filed with the island’s urban planning department. For the most part, the complaints were made by landowners looking to declassify non-buildable land. After examining each dossier, the island government’s leadership unveiled the new zoning plan last month. The new configuration is now available for public viewing until July 24, 2010 at the government building in Gustavia Pointe. That date signals the end of the 1-month period petitioners have in which to make their appeals, which the zoning commission will study. Once all the dossiers have been treated, the next step is the adoption of the definitive zoning plan. As of yet, no date has been announced for when that will happen.  

So, what about the new zoning plan? It’s a tightrope walk that must skillfully teeter between encouraging growth and limiting development. On the one hand, there must be enough growth to keep everyone in business, unemployment rates down, and the housing market strong. St. Barth’s real estate market has had an incredible run. If you have the means, building is a no-brainer. But, construction fever has its casualties.  Excessive development will overtax the island’s infrastructures, (including adequate and affordable rental housing for its service population) and could negatively impact the environment and natural beauty of the island. On an island like St. Barths, too much of anything -cars, buildings, noise, people- could make it less….St. Barths. And that, after all, is why people come here in the first place. What makes that balance even harder to strike is that the financial stakes for every square centimeter of land in St. Barths are so impressively high. Land preservations, land trusts, community spaces all become very costly. Even though the new zoning plan sticks to the conceptual guns of former versions- 60% of the island would be classified as green, and therefore unbuildable- there are a few points that merit closer attention. 

The “Keep Saline Green” contingency will undoubtedly be thrilled to learn that Saline Beach and its immediate surroundings will remain hotel-free. Hotelier André Balazs’ project for a new hotel in Saline has been scrapped, at least for now. In light of the vehement opposition to the project, that’s no real surprise. But, how long will Saline lovers be able to stave off this traditional St. Barth neighborhood’s ultimate face lift? The new zoning plan allows the western part of the Saline salt pond to be constructed so future developers need probably only bide their time. The most news-making change to be found in the new document may be the declassification of a large portion of land around the airport. More specifically, the land behind the Islets de la Plage (the bungalow rental properties anchoring one side of St. Jean bay), has now been classified as a residential zone, paving the way for new villas or hotels to go up. Toiny will be another neighborhood affected by zoning changes. Properties lining the eastern coast of the island have been de-greened, meaning that a new hotel property may soon break ground in Toiny. In yet another part of the island, the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich may be celebrating. Part of his exceptional beachfront property in Gouverneur has been rezoned as residential land opening the door to more freedom in future renovations.

The island zoning plan is instructed by zoning regulations which, as its name implies, lay out building norms and codes. Among other things, the code regulates the color and shape of island roofs (red or green and 4-sided) and the number of parking spaces each property must foreseeDensity is another concern that is addressed by the regulations. Island planners should be more forceful in overloading any one area of the island with new building. Instead, they will favor and enforce a more equitable policy of development to prevent future problems of overcrowding. More specifically, the code has set the building coefficient of inhabitable space (internal surface) that can be built at 20% of the total surface area in residential zones. For instance, if your lot is 15,000 sq/ft (around 1500 m2), you are allowed to build up to 3,000 sq/ft (around 300 m2) (internal surface). If you add external surfaces (terraces, etc.), you will be allowed to build up to 30% of the size of your lot.

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