The Historic Preservation Office Review Board has concurred with the governor’s position on the U.S. military’s divert airfield project, saying the proposed Air Force’s divert airfield should be developed on Tinian rather than on Saipan.
The HPO review board made this decision during Friday’s special meeting, where which it was also disclosed that since the beginning of the project, the U.S. military has already identified Saipan to be the site of its new airfield in the Western Pacific.
Saipan Tribune learned that Gov. Eloy S. Inos wrote the HPO board on Friday, Aug. 23, asking for the board’s concurrence with his decision to push for Tinian.
According to Inos, if the project pushed through on Saipan, it will have adverse impacts on the As Lito-Isley Field location, which is listed as a National Historic Landmark. The proposed project on Saipan will also put restrictions on the possibility of any future development or expansion at the Francisco C. Ada International Airport. Air Force training exercises will also have potential severe and negative impact on the people in southern villages and schools on Saipan, Inos said.
He pointed out that because the military already controls two-thirds of Tinian by long-term lease, the divert airfield project is best recommended for Tinian.
Don Farrell, the Tinian representative on the HPO board, described the potential economic impact of putting the project on Tinian as “very significant” compared to its economic impact on Saipan, which he believes will be “negligible.”
“We [the people of Tinian] already gave up [two-thirds of the] land to the military but we got nothing in return. By putting the divert airfield project on Tinian, at least they will build airport facilities for us that we don’t have to pay so there’s a significant economic impact to our people,” said Farrell.
He also believes that the project will not adversely impact historical sites on Tinian.
According to Carmen A. Sanchez, HPO coordinator for Tinian, the only potential site that could be affected will be the “House of Taga” but this could be prevented by re-routing the military’s heavy equipment.
In drafting the board’s concurrence letter, Wesley Bogdan, legal counsel for HPO, asked for some board clarification on the project and about the memorandum of agreement that is being circulated between and among agencies and interested parties.
“What’s the status of this MOA and who wrote it?” he asked Friday.
According to HPO board director, Dr. Hiro Kurashina, the U.S. Air Force earlier conducted an environmental impact assessment for the divert base project. This massive report, he said, was presented for public comments and has been the subject of a series of teleconferences and meetings between and among parties, including federal executives in Washington, D.C.
“The draft MOA was pretty much finalized in November last year and began January of this year,” he said, pointing out that military higher-ups have yet to make a final decision on where the project will be located.
Based on his review, Bogdan said: “With respect to the MOA drafted and being circulated, it has already chosen Saipan as the destination and there is no consideration of a Tinian alternative included on that.”
‘Protected by Covenant’
According to Farrell, the final decision—whether on Tinian or Saipan—lies entirely with the U.S. Department of Defense secretary. However, he said that once a decision is made to have the project on Saipan—despite disagreement from the governor and CNMI people—the Covenant can protect the Commonwealth.
“I participated in the early dialogue and I can say they ignored the end game, which is the Covenant. They wanted Saipan from the beginning and they provided some justifications, including that establishing this on Saipan would be less costly than on Tinian under today’s condition,” said Farrell.
He pointed out that Section 8 of the Covenant is clear that if DOD wants to acquire what they don’t have in addition to Tinian lands, then they have to go to U.S. Congress to make that happen.
“So even if the governor and us say ‘no’ they can go to Congress through the process. They want the project on Saipan and they want a purchase, not a lease of the property. Purchase is outside of the Covenant except for imminent domain that is outlined in the same [section 8]. The end game is U.S. Congress and we have the Covenant to protect us,” said Farrell.
He revealed that if project pushes through on Saipan, “they’re going to lease all remaining lands at Isley field in Francisco Ada Airport for 50 years and just like Tinian, the CNMI cannot use that land and will be reserved for military use.”
Farrell also cited as a clear example why the military’s rifle range project for Tinian did not push through despite the presence of a “programmatic agreement” with the military.
“It just didn’t happen…because it was sort of piecemeal,” he said.