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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Lawmakers move ahead with Pagan homesteading

A day after Gov. Eloy S. Inos said he opposes artillery ranges on Tinian and Pagan, the House Committee on Natural Resources voted Friday afternoon to recommend passage of a 6-month-old bill that would help pave the way for homestead development on Pagan. Lawmakers said there are 60 to 70 homestead requests for Pagan alone.

“This bill would have [Department of Public Lands] start homesteading on Pagan. DPL said it has been holding off on that because of military plans. We believe that Pagan remains a good place for homestead, especially now that there’s over 3,000 pending homestead applications in the CNMI. Where are they going to put all them?” committee chair Rep. Antonio Benavente (Ind-Saipan) told Saipan Tribune.

The committee voted to recommend passage of Rep. Trenton Conner’s (Ind-Tinian) House Bill 18-109 after holding a closed-door meeting with DPL’s Planning Division supervisor Patricia Rasa.

Rep. Roman Benavente (Ind-Saipan), also a committee member, said DPL is holding off investing money in homestead development on Pagan over worries that the U.S. Department of Defense would pursue plans to use the island for live-fire training.

But he said it seems the CNMI is unified in opposing live-fire training on Pagan, and that means the CNMI can proceed with its plans for the island.

He added that even if the military pursues Pagan, there should be ways to ensure that these training activities would still allow people to live there.

There is already a 2010 law, signed by former governor Benigno R. Fitial, that establishes a village and agricultural homesteading program in the Northern Islands.

Conner’s bill, however, intends to “compel” DPL to enforce the spirit and intent behind Article 11 of the NMI Constitution “by ensuring that any and all bureaucratic or administrative issues, including DPL’s own rules and regulations, that presently delay the granting of homestead applications are eliminated by law as they relate to the Northern Islands homesteads.”

DPL, however, said if this bill passes, the Legislature should also identify funding sources.

Both Reps. Antonio and Roman Benavente said the Legislature will seek sources of funding for this.

Pacific Command

Meanwhile, the governor, his counsel Wesley Bogdan and press secretary Angel Demapan left Sunday for Hawaii where they, along with Guam Gov. Eddie Calvo and others from Guam, will be meeting with the U.S. Pacific Command on military plans for the region.

National news quoted U.S. Pacific Command commander Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III as saying that America’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region is on track and that the U.S. Pacific Command is staying on top of the growing sophistication of today’s weapon systems. Locklear calls it "the most militarized region in the world."

The United States’ security push in the region comes with the growth of economies and because of the increasing defense requirements of Asia-Pacific nations.

In the CNMI alone, the U.S. military proposes to expand the use of Tinian leased lands to include live-fire training ranges. It also plans to use Pagan for live-fire training.

On Thursday, the governor—in his strongest statement to date—said he would not support artillery ranges on both Pagan and Tinian for safety reasons and pointed out that Pagan alone is an “uphill battle.”

The governor said it was never envisioned that Tinian will host artillery, what he described as “big guns.” He said live-fire training ranges using “small arms” was initially planned and that’s something that’s acceptable.

Inos was referring to a 2010 Record of Decision for the Guam and CNMI military buildup’s final environmental impact statement involved four live-fire training ranges will be built on Tinian: a platoon battle course, an automated combat pistol/military police firearms qualification course, rifle known distance range, and a field firing range.

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