By a vote of 19-0, the House of Representatives paved the way for the Department of Public Lands to grant homestead permits for residents wanting to relocate to Pagan and other Northern Islands, 33 years since Mount Pagan first erupted in 1981.
But DPL Secretary Pete A. Tenorio said the department “unequivocally opposes the passage of House Bill 18-109.”
Among other things, Tenorio said, the bill proposes to “usurp” DPL’s functions “by forcing DPL to disregard Article 11 of the NMI Constitution, Public Law 15-2 or the Public Lands Act, Public Law 1-42 or the Village Homesteading Act of 1979, the Village Homestead Rules and Regulations, and other related statutes, regulations and procedures relating to homestead and homestead waiver.”
“The Legislature cannot usurp the functions of DPL unless it repeals or amends Public Law 15-2,” Tenorio said in his written comments on the bill.
HB 18-109, authored by Rep. Trenton Conner (Ind-Tinian), still has to go to the Senate.
House members debated at length the Natural Resources Committee’s report recommending passage of HB 18-109. The debate continued during discussion of the bill itself.
Conner’s bill didn’t pass the House until exactly 5pm yesterday.
“I appreciate members’ support to this bill. I hope it’s something that will come to fruition,” he told Saipan Tribune after the session.
Conner said even before Mount Pagan’s eruption, there were already Northern Island residents applying for homestead permits. He said those dated back some four decades ago.
If signed into law, the legislation would “compel the Department of Public Lands to enforce the spirit and intent behind Article 11 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.”
Rep. Teresita Santos (R-Rota) voted “yes” with reservation, owing to her concerns that those granted homestead permits on Rota still could not afford to build their homes because of high costs of construction materials and others are faced with possible revocation of their homestead permits. She said some with deeds to their property are also waiting for clearance from federal agencies.
“Why treat our brothers and sisters differently? Why do we bend rules for some, but not for the others?” she asked.
Besides Santos, also voting “yes with reservation” was Rep. Tony Sablan (Ind-Saipan).
The House vote came weeks after Gov. Eloy S. Inos said he opposes the U.S. military’s planned use of heavy artillery on Tinian and Pagan. The governor’s statement reinforces not only the House’s position and that of other sectors opposed to the militarization of Pagan especially.
The House Natural Resources Committee, in recommending passage of the bill, said the legislation intends to grant all present pending applications for homesteads in the Northern Islands to allow grantees to begin construction on their homes, provided that these grantees have the means to fulfill their duties and obligations under the law to improve upon the land.
But DPL’s Tenorio said the bill “proposes to disregard the functions of DPL as spelled out in Public Law 15-2 and now wants to carve its own rules as to how the homestead program for the Northern Islands should be administered and implemented.”
“The bill proposes to waive virtually, if not literally, all homestead requirements from Northern Islands current and former residents who are eligible to apply for in the Northern Islands,” he said.
Tenorio asked whether the bill intends to disregard the requirements of the Division of Environmental Quality, Division of Fish and Wildlife, Historic Preservation Office, and Coastal Resources Management, as well as federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Geological Survey.
“If eligible and qualified Northern Islands residents are issued permits for residential homestead lots in the Northern Islands, how are they going to construct their homes? Where are they going to get their construction materials? If they could afford to buy construction materials from Saipan, how are they going to transport the materials to the Northern Islands? What about the other residents that cannot afford to buy construction materials? How are they to ‘fulfill their duties and obligations under the law to improve upon the land’,” he said.
Northern Islands Mayor Tobias DLC. Aldan, meanwhile, supports and commends the bill.
“The bill will definitely help DPL in performance of its responsibility to carry out the Northern Islands, particularly in Pagan. This will allow the residents to construct safe, decent and sanitary dwelling for their families as well as engage in sustainable farming on prime agricultural lands they occupied for eons,” he said.
Aldan asks that the bill be passed “as it would immediately expedite the distribution of homestead lots to the Northern Islands residents.”