Request included in FY 2017 proposed budget sent to Congress
The Department of Defense needs some $9 million to lease or purchase 7.1 hectares of land in the Commonwealth as part of their planned divert airfield activities in the NMI, according to an U.S. Air Force fiscal year 2017 budget request package sent to U.S. Congress this month.
The Air Force does not specify the exact location of the land needed for a desired long team lease—“in excess of 25 years”—according to their report; however, negotiations for the proposed lease involves the West Field Tinian Airport and is expected to begin this summer, Saipan Tribune learned.
“This project is the first installment of a larger land acquisition package to enable future beddowns to occur within the CNMI,” the Air Force said in the budget report.
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-Saipan), who shared the Air Force budget request in his newsletter, first broke the news last Saturday, two days after top Defense officials convened in a meeting with Gov. Ralph DLG Torres to announce that a “Tinian-only” option would be the military’s “preferred alternative” for the divert airfield project.
The Air Force’s “hybrid option” to use both Saipan and Tinian airports to lessen competing use conflicts between commercial and military tanker craft was found disagreeable with the Torres administration and the local ports authority.
Sablan on Saturday said the Air Force included $9,002,000 in its military construction budget request to lease 7.1 hectares of land—or 17.5 acres—in support of the divert activities and exercises initiative.
Sablan cites a Navy real estate survey to state that the cost to acquire the land by fee is $3.2 million.
“But…the Air Force is prepared to lease the property at a higher cost in order to conform to the Covenant agreement to acquire only the minimum real property interest necessary to meet mission requirements,” Sablan said, citing the budget report.
This is not the first time the Defense Department has proposed a lease or purchase of land in the Commonwealth in recent years. The Department of Navy, for the Marine Corps Forces Pacific live-fire training project, has proposed a lease of the entire island of Pagan to support training inclusive of a bombing range on Mt. Pagan.
The last lease negotiations between the CNMI government and U.S. military involved the 1994 leaseback and 1999 partial release of leaseback rights over on Tinian, where two-thirds of land is leased to the military.
The cost to lease the desired land interest is about $1.13 million per hectare for a long-term lease versus $450,00 per hectare to acquire by fee, according to the Air Force budget report.
‘More land a must’
In their budget, Air Force stressed the need for securing the desired land because the existing federally leased land in CNMI did not have the “land parcels required for” the divert airfield project.
“None of the projects that support the Divert and Exercise Mission within CNMI can be constructed” without the land, and initial operations also “cannot be achieved until these facilities are constructed, depriving the Air Force of this much-needed operational capability,” the Air Force said.
“The Air Force is willing to purchase by fee if the CNMI government is willing to sell it,” the Air Force added. “This project allows the NAVFACPAC to begin land acquisition discussions for the entire DOD requirement, with initial emphasis for the Air Force requirement. It is important to begin negotiations now and pursue a phased approach because land acquisition discussions could take 12 to 18 months to complete.”
The Air Force has set the options of building on the north end or the south end of the Tinian airport.
Asked which end they would build on, Anthony Crutchfield, deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said last week that the “the indication is that the favored place—not a decision—would be the north.”
“But there is a process,” he told reporters, “we have to work through, a legal process…before a decision is made.”
For any future buildup at the Saipan or Tinian airports, the military and the ports authority would have to come up with an agreeable “airport layout plan”—expected to satisfy commercial concerns with military needs—to submit to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval.
The Air Force dropped fighter jets from their divert plans after scrutiny by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over severe noise impacts to the local community, during an environmental impact process in recent years.
Commonwealth Ports Authority executive director Maryann Lizama looked toward the future, when sought for comment on the military’s announcement of Tinian as its preferred location for the divert project.
“CPA has held its position in holding U.S. Air Force divert and all other military activities on Tinian,” Lizama told Saipan Tribune. “This is in line with the board of director’s decision through the board resolution two years ago as well as Gov. Torres’ and Lt. Gov. Hocog’s and their administration.”
“We should be making headway from here forward.” Lizama added.
Private businessman Alex Sablan, a former Saipan Chamber of Commerce president, said they had been a agreeable with the administration’s and CPA’s position that the divert project be placed on Tinian.
“It made the most sense to everyone,” Sablan said in an interview last Thursday. “The Chamber was supportive of this effort” and “we are pleased they made the right choice.
Sablan believes CPA needs to look at the overall expansion of the Saipan airport as well as the Tinian airport.
He pointed to signatory bonds that airport concessionaries or airlines could be signatories on, noting this was how the original Saipan airport was built for some $17 million.
“You have 600 people coming in the wee hours every morning, basically wrapped around poles all the way down to Gate 4. And that’s not right,” Alex Sablan said, adding that the arrival cue only allows for 150 people, not the 300 as believed, when taking in concerns of airport security.
“It’s taking three to four hours” for “three different flights that are coming in the wee hours of the morning. That is not a good first experience for any of our tourists or our returning residents,” Sablan said.
If Tinian is able to sign on airlines to arrive on Tinian for direct flights, Sablan suggested that the Tinian airport approach expansion in the same way—by getting Chinese or other carriers going to Tinian to sign off on signatory bonds to expand the airport along with duty free or food vendors.
“You’d hope you’d use all those concession agreements to secure a signatory bond for the expansion of the airport and I would imagine Tinian needs to do the same thing,” Sablan said. “They are going to need to be expanded [for] direct flights.”
Asked last Thursday if the shift in focus to Tinian would prompt the military to look to help repair the Tinian port, which is in tatters, Crutchield said, “this is something they can take a look at” but added he was not in a position to say they “will or will not do it.”
“I think it’s something we should talk about,” Crutchfield said. “With this relationship [between the governor and himself as DoD’s new single point of contact for military projects], it’s something we can talk about and go from there.”
“Our focus right now is on the military strategic nature of what we need for the Pacific Command and the security of the Pacific,” he said.
For their part, the Department of Navy has highlighted a potential “conflict” with current development at the Tinian port and their military plans, calling these developments—specifically a casino resort built on the wharf—a possible “compromise” of their rights to the port and airport, according to a letter obtained from a Navy lawyer to the CPA last month.
However, the Navy later clarified that they did not see any existing conflicts with the lease and said they “merely communicated its desire” to make sure that “DoD interests are part of the planning process in existing and future leasing actions.”
Until things ramp up with further Navy environmental impact documents and “ultimately what happens with” with these plans, Alex Sablan casted doubt on if anything will happen at the port.
“Obviously, we don’t have the funding,” he said. “I think everyone is relying on the idea that the military will come in and rehab that port facility. They have shown concerns recently about tenants in the port. We are hopeful they fix the port and that both Tinian’s ports—the lifeline of their economy—are built to the satisfaction of all operators coming in.” (With reports from Frauleine Villanueva-Dizon)