Virgin Islands News

Property Tax Bills to Itemize Back Taxes and Fees

Should it become law, a bill sent out of the Senate Financial Services Committee Wednesday would require future annual real property tax notices to list other taxes and user fees owed the government.
The bill also mandates personal notification of delinquency, an increase to existing rules requiring notice in the papers, sending of notice by certified mail and attempting to contact the taxpayer. The goal is to give taxpayers more information and more notice of delinquency, so both the taxpayer and government are better prepared to pay.

Oil threatens pelicans saved from extinction

Birds hailed as conservation success are 'in dire trouble,' warns scientist

FORT JACKSON, La. - For more than a decade, the hundreds of brown pelicans that nested among the mangrove shrubs on Queen Bess Island west of here were living proof that a species brought to the edge of extinction could come back and thrive.

The island was one of three sites in Louisiana where the large, long-billed birds were reintroduced after pesticides wiped them out in the state in the 1960s.

But on Thursday, 29 of the birds, their feathers so coated in thick brown sludge that their natural white and gray markings were totally obscured, were airlifted to a bird rehabilitation center in Fort Jackson, the latest victims of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Another dozen were taken to other rescue centers.

Six more pelicans were brought here on Friday, and as visitors to the center looked on, the birds huddled together in makeshift plywood cages and, in their unnatural stillness, looked as if the gooey muck had frozen them solid. The 29 pelicans brought in Thursday were being treated in hot rooms by workers in protective clothing.

“The pelicans are in dire trouble,” said Doug Inkley, a senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, who worried that the oil spill could put an end to the bird’s recovery in Louisiana.

Hundreds dead, damaged
The images of oil-covered birds — pelicans, northern gannets, laughing gulls and others — are eerily reminiscent of the Exxon Valdez disaster 21 years ago, and have in recent days have become the most vivid symbol of the damage wrought by the hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil that have poured into the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20.

Since the spill, 612 damaged birds had been cataloged as of Friday, most dead but some alive and drenched in oil, federal officials said.

Yet the brown pelican, because of its history of robust recovery in the face of extreme peril, has a special significance for the public.

The birds were once so common on the coastline here that they grace the state flag. They were frequent companions for fishermen, who shared their waters and admired their skill at spotting fish from afar and diving from great heights to scoop them up in their bills.

At the turn of the 20th century, observers estimated the brown pelican population in Louisiana at close to 50,000.

But by 1961, no nesting pair could be spotted along the state’s entire coast, according to LaCoast, a Coast Guard Web site. Like another subspecies of the brown pelican found in California, the local birds had been hard hit by DDT and other pesticides, which acted to thin the shells of their eggs. The eggs were crushed when the adults sat on them. (DDT was banned in the United States in 1972.)

In 1968, Louisiana took birds from a surviving Florida colony and reintroduced them along the state’s southern coast in three spots. One was Queen Bess Island, which had been the site of one of the last breeding pairs before extinction, said Kerry St. Pé, program director of the nearby Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program.

Struggle, then flourish
Still, the birds struggled, threatened this time by the loss of their habitat. The local wetlands, hurt by levees in the Mississippi that blocked sediment from flowing downstream and by canals cut by oil companies looking to lay pipe, were sinking into the gulf at an astonishing rate. Queen Bess was going under as well until 1990, when a coastal restoration project financed a rock barrier around the island, which stabilized it. The pelican colony began to flourish and the birds’ offspring helped repopulate the coastline, Mr. St. Pé said.

Last year, the birds were officially taken off the endangered species list. But the oil spill, experts said, could change that.

Like all birds, pelicans are very sensitive to oil, said Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative.

It prevents them from regulating their body temperature when it gets on their feathers, she said, and in Louisiana the pelicans are subject to overheating. The oil can also poison the fish the pelicans feed on and seep through the shells of pelican eggs, killing the embryos.

The potential for damage was frighteningly apparent at the rescue center set up here by the International Bird Rescue Research Center with BP and federal and state officials.

All day Thursday, oiled birds, including the 29 brown pelicans, arrived at the makeshift veterinary emergency room built in a hangar on a former military base. They were carried from Coast Guard helicopters in dog kennels and cardboard boxes with air holes punched in them.

Most of the birds were so thoroughly coated in crude that they could not stand up. Some were stuck to the floor of their cages. Workers wiped off thick globs of oil with towels, then gave them fluids and fed them a fish slurry.

The pelicans were placed in plywood pens covered with blankets. The next morning, workers began to clean them using hot water and Dawn, a mild dish detergent.

So far, even the most heavily oiled pelicans have survived. Had they not been treated immediately, however, they would have almost certainly drowned or died of starvation or exposure, according to a veterinarian with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

The birds at the rehabilitation center, said Sharon Taylor, a veterinarian here, represent a lucky few — far more are certain to die in the wild.

“A lot of them will just disappear into the environment,” she said. “We will probably only find a very, very small percentage of what’s been impacted out there.”

Owners Stop Paying Mortgage ... And Stop Fretting About It

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — For Alex Pemberton and Susan Reboyras, foreclosure is becoming a way of life — something they did not want but are in no hurry to get out of.

Foreclosure has allowed them to stabilize the family business. Go to Outback occasionally for a steak. Take their gas-guzzling airboat out for the weekend. Visit the Hard Rock Casino.

“Instead of the house dragging us down, it’s become a life raft,” said Mr. Pemberton, who stopped paying the mortgage on their house here last summer. “It’s really been a blessing.”

Mortgage rates sink to lowest this year

Freddie Mac says average rates for 30-year mortgages fall to 4.78 percent, shy of record low

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Mortgage rates have fallen to the lowest level of the year as investors poured money into the safe haven of U.S. government securities.

The average rate on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage dipped to 4.78 percent this week from 4.84 percent a week earlier, mortgage company Freddie Mac said Thursday. It was the lowest level since early December, when rates fell to a record low of 4.71 percent.

Pet Coke a Distant Memory as Alpine Energy Looks to Get CZM Permit

After more than two years of planning and $4.9 million invested, Alpine Energy hopes to break ground this year on a garbage-burning power plant on St. Croix and two plants to convert trash into fuel, one for St. Croix and one for St. Thomas.
Donald Hurd, vice president of the Colorado-based energy company, told the St. Croix Rotary Club Thursday he expects to apply for a Coastal Zone Management permit in just a few days.

VIPA Addresses Runway Issues at King and Rohlsen Airports

Three runway closures at Cyril E. King Airport over the past two months, including one this past Sunday, have caused planes to be diverted so that repairs could be made to the surface.
The King runway, which is being repaved, failed in first 1,200 feet, which is the oldest part of the runway, according to Byron Todman of the V.I. Port Authority’s (VIPA) engineering department.
The repaving project is still on schedule for completion in early December 2010.

Nearly One-Quarter of Crown Bay Tenants in Arrears

Although the V.I. Port Authority board learned Wednesday that its revenues were up by 4.1 percent, that news was dampened with a report that eight out of some 35 tenants at Crown Bay Center are more than six months behind in their rent payments.

Congress Likely to Send V.I. Constitution Back to Convention

Congressional Delegate Donna Christensen urged a U.S. Senate Committee on Wednesday to send the proposed constitution back to the V.I. Constitutional Convention to consider input from the White House and Justice Department, and then to let the people vote on whatever document emerged from the re-engaged convention.

Turbines' Start Halted by Outages; PSC Ruling Could Stop Them Again

After sitting dormant for a year and a half, the Tutu Park wind turbines are tested and ready to spin but face yet another challenge Friday at a PSC hearing.

Overcoming an 18-month period of challenges at the V.I. Public Service Commission, the windmills could have started this week, but the V.I. Water and Power Authority’s outages prevented the turbines going into service so far, according to Dan Mulligan, CEO of Island Wind Power, the company that owns the windmills.

However, a PSC hearing on Friday may take the wind out of Mulligan’s sails. Overshadowing the Island Wind Power team’s elation over the testing is the apprehension of the outcome of the public hearing, which will decide whether Island Wind Power is a public utility.

Time to Storm the Castle?

At the High End, a Bit More Money Yields Lots More Home; 14 Acres and an Orchard

Daniel Horowitz is ready to bargain.

The 55-year-old trial lawyer is trying to sell a four-bedroom villa with marble imported from Italy, a winery and a fruit orchard on 14 acres in Lafayette, Calif. Mr. Horowitz already chopped the price to $3.2 million from $4 million, the amount he estimates having spent on the land and construction. "We thought it would sell right away," he says. But it hasn't, and he is willing to consider lower offers, he says.

Three years into the housing bust, steep discounts are emerging in the market for high-end homes, which had been the real-estate industry's last redoubt until now. Despite the budding economic recovery, demand for pricey properties is falling as potential buyers struggle to come up with money for big down payments and find it difficult to qualify for large mortgages. With buyers dropping out and homes languishing on the market, sellers are beginning to capitulate, cutting prices to move their properties.

The result: Buyers with lots of cash, or access to it, can find great deals. Not all million-dollar homes are castles, especially in coastal markets. But price drops and relatively small bumps in budget are landing shoppers the kind of amenities—kingly bathrooms, stables, gates—that were once beyond reach. Kenneth Rosen, chairman of the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, says it is a "very good time to be a buyer at the high end."

In some markets, houses that are more than twice the size of others are on the market for less than twice the cost. Shaun Rawls, a broker at Keller Williams Realty in Atlanta, points to two homes with similarly desirable locations in that city's wealthy Buckhead district. The smaller home, with 3,060 square feet, is priced at $765,000, or $250 a square foot. The larger home, with 7,612 square feet, has an asking price of $1.2 million, or $158 per square foot.

Though larger homes often have lower square-footage costs than smaller homes, the gap today is often greater. In Mill Valley, Calif., a 1,127-square-foot three-bedroom listed at $898,000 just went under contract. Its per-square-foot cost: $797. A four-bedroom home five minutes away—and nearly three times the size at 3,077 square feet—is being listed at $1.5 million. Its square-foot cost: $486.

Similarly, in Scottsdale, Ariz., one four-bedroom home lists for $1.2 million while another lists for $1.48 million. That additional $280,000 buys a 5,400 square-foot home, 46% bigger than the cheaper house.

Room to Drop

The million-plus market seems ripe for falling prices. Until now it has been lower-end homes, which saw the sharpest run-up during the boom, that have borne the brunt of the housing bust. Though there aren't national statistics that track the million-dollar market, local markets show that prices for top properties have room to drop. For example, the bottom third of the Los Angeles area market—currently homes under $300,000—has seen prices fall by 52.5% since the market peak in 2006, returning to April 2003 levels, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller indexes. Prices for the top third of the market—currently homes above $510,000—have fallen by 27.3% from the peak, to March 2004 levels. While prices at the bottom of the market gained 5% over the last quarter of 2009 from the previous quarter, high-end home prices dropped 0.5%.

Keller Williams Realty
This approximately 10,686-square-foot-home at 580 Madeline Drive in Pasadena, Calif. is listed for $2.5 million. It has 10 bedrooms and nine bathrooms, a billiards room and a guest suite.

Home sales across the board remain sluggish. Sales of existing homes fell 0.6% last month to a seasonally adjusted rate of 5.02 million units, while new-home sales fell by 2.2% last month to lows last seen in 1963. But the mismatch of supply and demand is now widest in the seven-figure market. In the most coveted Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, for example, supplies are fairly tight up to about $900,000. But it is a buyer's market between that level and $2 million, says James W. Nellis II of Re/Max Allegiance, a local broker.

That makes for some deep discounts. In Mill Valley, Calif., the price on one four-bedroom home was reduced March 11 to $2 million from $3 million. The house has 2,500 square feet of decks overlooking San Francisco Bay, says the listing agent, Suzy Doyle. On Ranch Gate Road in Chula Vista, Calif., a foreclosed home with six bedrooms is being offered at $675,000. In 2006, when it was new, the home sold for $1.3 million.

Few people consider million-dollar homes cheap, of course. Stretching to buy a big home comes with obvious risks. Prices may be falling, but no one knows where the bottom is. Marc Carpenter, a real-estate agent in San Diego, cautions buyers in that battered market that, "If you buy now, [you should] plan on prices reducing over time."

Another potential pitfall is that higher-end houses are much harder to value than lower priced cookie-cutter dwellings. Often, high-end homes are unique, and the prices they fetch may have to do with such intangibles as an ocean view or an address with more snob appeal than those just blocks away. That makes it much harder for buyers to find comparable sales indicative of true market value.

Bargain hunters also need to be realistic. They aren't likely to get a steal on the best-preserved homes in the nation's top neighborhoods—places like Central Park West in Manhattan, Santa Barbara, Calif., or the exclusive parts of Boulder, Colo. Supply is permanently constrained in such areas because there is little room to build. And lots of people with money are eager to move in, so prices are likely to come down only slightly.

The best deals will be on high-end homes that might need work or aren't in the most highly sought-after locations. That leaves plenty of coveted neighborhoods with good schools and amenities to choose from.

Harry Norman Realtors
Built in the 1980s, this 2,955-square-foot home at 2609 Peachtree Battle Place NW in Atlanta has four bedrooms and four bathrooms. It is on the market for $765,000.

Despite the risks, the mortgage market might be suggesting that shoppers buy sooner rather than later. Many forecasters predict that interest rates will rise from today's unusually low levels, in part because the Federal Reserve this month is ending its heavy purchases of mortgage securities. Even if waiting another year might bring lower prices, at least some of that advantage could be wiped out by an interest-rate spike.

Interest rates play a huge role in affordability—and even more so in high-end markets. A $1.2 million home today might require a 25% down payment, says Lou Barnes, a mortgage banker in Boulder. At today's rate of about 5.75% for a 30-year "jumbo" mortgage, that would mean a monthly payment of $5,252. But if rates were to rise to 6.5%, the monthly payment would rise to $5,688. The home's price would have to fall $1.1 million to keep the monthly payment at a comparable $5,215.

On the demand side, the technicalities of the mortgage market are thinning the ranks of million-dollar home buyers more than usual. Most buyers need a mortgage and would much prefer a cheaper, mainstream one backed by Fannie Mae (NASDAQ:FNM - News), Freddie Mac (NASDAQ:FRE - News) or the Federal Housing Administration. But loans that meet the government's criteria can be no larger than $417,000 in most of the U.S.; in higher-cost areas like New York and San Francisco, that limit stretches to $729,750.

Loans above those limits are considered jumbos. While rates on jumbos are way down from a high of about 7.9% in October 2008, they remain well above the 5.1% found on conventional loans guaranteed by Fannie or Freddie, according to HSH Associates. What's more, lenders also require heftier down payments for jumbo loans—in some cases 25% or more of the home's value.

The shrinking pool of potential buyers is giving people of means unusual bargaining power. The inventory of all listed homes in February was enough to last 8.6 months at the current sales rate, according to the National Association of Realtors, a trade group. For those priced above $1 million, the supply was enough to last nearly 32 months.

'Perfect Time to Buy'

For these reasons, "this is the perfect time to buy," says Eric Awad, a neurologist in Atlanta who thinks market conditions are forcing sellers of high-end homes to knuckle under. He and his wife, Nachwa Jarkas, an assistant professor at Emory University, are eager to trade up from their town home and buy a four-bedroom house in Atlanta's posh Buckhead district. They are looking in the range of $1 million to $1.2 million, though Dr. Awad hopes to "knock the price down" below $1 million.

Like many potential buyers of high-end homes, the couple has a big hurdle to clear: Before buying, they need to sell their town home, which is on the market for $575,000, and they have no idea how long it will take for them to find a buyer. In this still-troubled real-estate market, success favors buyers who don't have to sell first.

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