With only a month and a half remaining before the residents of the Bournefield low-cost housing complex are expected to vacate the premises, so far none have moved out and only a handful have responded to requests for financial information.
In October the V.I. Port Authority, which owns Bournefield, informed the 42 familes residing there that the complex was slated to be closed as of March 31. It cited health, safety and liability issues as the reason, and each family was offered compensation equivalent to six months’ rent to ease the move.
But at Wednesday’s VIPA board meeting, Attorney General Vincent Frazer, who is a VIPA board member, said that so far no one has moved out, and only seven families have submitted financial and demographic information that VIPA requested to help rehouse them in appropriate alternate lodgings.
"The staff has done their best to communicate with tenants, and get information from them, but they are not cooperating," said Frazer. "The board will have to be prepared for the consequences when those tenants get eviction notices."
The board passed a motion to authorize the issuance of "notices to quit," which will be distributed on March 31 to any tenants remaining in the complex on that day. The eviction notice will give them 30 days, or until April 30, to vacate the premises.
The move is bound to anger residents, who claimed last month in a public meeting that VIPA did not do enough over the years to maintain the buildings, which are in a state of disrepair. They also complained that the VIPA is not doing enough to help rehouse them and that the timeframe for relocation is too short.
Officials from the V.I. Housing Authority and V.I. Housing Finance Authority have been trying to help the tenants find alternate housing, but without much success. Residents’ options are severely limited by the fact that most can’t afford market-rate rents, and the waiting lists for section-8 and public housing already have thousands of people on them.
The Bournefield residents have been publicly supported by Sens. Celestino White, Carlton Dowe and Alvin Williams, who have vowed to help find a solution and fight on their behalf. White recently asked VIPA board member Robert O’Connor if he could give a presentation at Wednesday’s board meeting, but White was not in attendance.
Last month White told the tenants that VIPA had no authority to remove them come March 31, and that legal action would be necessary to make them move. With the board’s approval of the motion to authorize quit notices, it appears Port Authority does indeed intend to follow the legal route.
"It is important that tenants know what Port Authority’s decision is from October 17, and that the board stands behind it," said board member Gordon Finch.
Also on the board’s agenda Wednesday was a proposal to dredge parts of the harbor around the Crown Bay cruise ship dock, in order to make it possible for two Princess Cruise ships to berth at the same time.
At the moment, Princess is only able to dock its Grand Class ships at the south berth because the turn maneuver required to exit the north berth would position the craft in areas that are not deep enough. These ships require a minimum depth of 32 or 33 feet (depending which part of the port they are in), but most of the sea floor around Crown Bay is only 31 feet deep.
So whenever there are two Princess ships in harbor, only one can dock at Crown Bay, and the other must dock at the West Indian Company dock. VIPA Executive Director Kenn Hobson said that this is costly for VIPA because the agency has to pay the difference in berthing fees between Crown Bay and WICO, and Crown Bay merchants suffer a loss of income from the missed foot traffic.
Princess Vice President Steve Nielsen recently met with Hobson and requested that VIPA dredge the area extending 200 feet from the north berth to a depth of 32 feet, and the East Gregory entrance channel to a depth of 33 feet. The East Gregory Channel is the waterway between Water Island and Hassel Island, which Princess hopes to use as an alternate entry and exit route for ships docked in the north berth.
Hobson noted that the price tag for the dredging work was projected to be $625,000. He said that though this seemed excessive compared to previous dredging projects, the area is more difficult to dredge and thus more expensive. He displayed a survey map of the harbor floor that showed hundreds of non-adjacent points where the depth failed to exceed 31 feet.
Finch said that there was not enough money in the VIPA dredging budget for such a costly project, so the funds would have to come out of the major maintenance budget. This would likely mean that other scheduled capital maintenance projects would have to be delayed until 2012, though Finch did not specify which ones.
O’Connor, who was elected board chairman Wednesday, complained that it seemed like new dredging projects were cropping up too often.
"It seems to come up over and over that we need to dredge a little here, a little there," he said. "I don’t want to hear this come up again."
Legal counsel Don Mills noted that there was language in the original agreement between VIPA and Princess that "should it prove necessary," VIPA would dredge for them. Board member Beverly Nicholson-Doty suggested tightening up the language in subsequent agreements so that the authority would not be on the hook for pricey future dredging projects unless they were absolutely necessary.
Hobson countered that he felt the current project was a matter of urgency, and the board agreed to discuss it further in committee.
Board members present Wednesday were Frazer, Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty, O’Connor, Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls, Yvonne E. L. Thraen, Finch and O’Connor.
During Wednesday’s meeting, O’Connor was elected chairman of the board, Nicholson-Doty was elected vice chair, and Smalls was elected secretary.