Military’s reservation of rights for Tinian airport remain a question

The U.S. Department of Defense should have a good answer to the question of what exact rights it has to the Tinian West Field airport in light of its interest in building on the CPA property to support its military activities there.

Defense would like CPA to submit an airport layout plan to the Federal Aviation Administration inclusive of its plans to build a parallel runway, an air traffic control tower, power and waste management facilities, fuel storage facilities, and other infrastructure at the Tinian airport.

But Defense has made their “exact rights to use West Field…less than perfectly clear,” according to a memorandum to the CPA board by executive director Maryann Lizama after a meeting with an FAA/DOD working group in November.

Saipan Tribune learned that the military reserved certain rights to the airfield when the airport property was leased back to CPA. This matter was discussed in a Commonwealth Ports Authority board meeting last week.

Board member Benigno Sablan said during discussion that the United States “have all the rights” when it comes to national security issues but pointed to the CNMI Covenant as the legal authority CPA’s legal counsels should look at in ensuring that CNMI interests are protected.

“If things of this nature occur up here, we have very little authority to change what the national government of the United States wants to do…So the legal authority you guys should be helping us look for is under the Covenant where the federal government can’t take away land…from the CNMI,” he said.

DOD’s leasehold interest in the CPA property was purchased back by the CNMI many years ago.

In 1994 the CNMI and the U.S. agreed to revise the leaseback, both agreeing that the U.S. did not need approximately 1,245 acres of the land leased to the U.S. This land consists of the San Jose harbor area on Tinian and all of the land between the harbor and West Field.

Because the U.S. had already paid rent for that property, the CNMI paid back in essence approximately $2.6 million so that the CNMI could develop the property, but the U.S. reserved some rights to the harbor.

In 1999 as a result of the CNMI’s desire to improve West Field and as a result of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s habitat protection actions concerning the Tinian Monarch, the CNMI and U.S. agreed to revise the leaseback agreement so that West Field could be considered surplus property and no longer needed for defense-related purposes.

The U.S. gave up its rights to West Field, but reserved certain “temporary” training rights to use West Field in a manner that would not interfere with or suspend civil aviation activities.

At the time these revisions and reservation of rights were negotiated, the proposed live fire training ranges on Tinian were not envisioned or planned, which now leaves a clash between what DOD would like to do at the airport, with what they agreed to when the reservation of rights were created.

The DOD has proposed two phases for the ALP. The first is an “expeditionary ALP” for a temporary facility from 2016 to 2021. The second is an “end-state ALP” from 2012 and beyond.

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Dennis B. Chan | Reporter
Dennis Chan covers education, environment, utilities, and air and seaport issues in the CNMI. He graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Guam. Contact him at dennis_chan@saipantribune.com.

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