The Saipan and Northern Islands Legislative Delegation Committee on Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee approved Tuesday Gov. Ralph DLG Torres’ appointments for the Commonwealth Zoning Board except for two, the appointments of Juan Wabol and Lee Dong Kyu.
Wabol’s appointment was rejected due to the appointment package being incomplete. Kyu, on the other hand, is a permanent resident and is therefore not eligible to serve as a Zoning Board member. Based on CNMI law, each member of the Zoning Board shall be either of Northern Marianas descent, or be a U.S. citizen or national who has lived in the Commonwealth for a minimum of five consecutive years prior to the selection.
Torres’ other appointments include Perry Inos Jr. and Kevin C. Deleon Guerrero, and the reappointment of Joe Ayuyu Jr.
Voting to confirm the appointees will be done at the next delegation session, with May 26 as a deadline, or the nominees will automatically be approved. If confirmed, the new board members will each serve two-year terms.
Reviving the CNMI
At the public hearing, Zoning Board administrator Geraldine dela Cruz endorsed the nominees and highlighted the crucial role Zoning board members play in the CNMI’s economic recovery.
“This is very important for a small community like ours. Our trying economic status today…topped with the global pandemic we are battling, indicate the need to join together and pitch into reviving the CNMI,” she added.
The seven-member board will create policies and make decisions that will promote the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of the community. According to dela Cruz, these are policies and decisions that protect and conserve the value of buildings and support the most appropriate use of land in the CNMI.
During the session, the lawmakers asked the appointees about conflict of interests, overdevelopment, accessibility of zoning services, and the current state of the local economy.
Making it easier for businesses
The appointees, being either business owners or shareholders of family businesses themselves, should already know the processes and obstacles investors normally face in building a business in the CNMI, according to lawmakers.
Rep. Jose Itibus (R-Saipan) pointed out that the appointees, if confirmed, should look into these obstacles and “make it easier for businesses to come in and apply,” but quickly clarifying that “easier” does not mean opening up everything to investors.
Sen. Vinnie Sablan (Ind-Saipan), on the other hand, asked that they prioritize the “healthy coexistence” of private dwellings, residential dwellings, business establishments, and the natural resources.
“If confirmed, you will be serving on a very important board, a board that would give us the future outlook of our Commonwealth, of our islands,” Sablan said. “Take care of the environment and ensure that things are balanced, the developments are balanced and planned. I’m sure we can get ahead of the curve and welcome back our tourists and visitors so that our businesses can thrive.”
No to overdevelopment
Rep. Sheila Babauta (Ind-Saipan) raised the issue of overdevelopment, sharing her experience of having lived in areas outside the CNMI where overdevelopment has pushed the indigenous population out, or into homelessness. The legislator then asked the appointees for their vision of development, and up to what point they consider development to be too much.
Re-appointee Ayuyu said, “The vision is a balance. We definitely want to look at the needs of the developers, the business people, look at the needs of the community. How we can improve our livelihood on the island for the majority of the people.”
For Inos, the key is to “stay within our means.” The process would include gathering stakeholders, doing research, and identifying the maximum capacity to see what the island can handle, with anything over that cap would constitute overdevelopment.
Deleon Guerrero highlighted the lack of diversification of the CNMI economy, and its overdependence on tourism, citing as an example the hotels on the islands that are now all suffering because of the lack of tourists due to COVID-19.
“We want to encourage other lines of industry that’s not tourism-related so we can have a more diverse and more strong economy, so that no matter what hits us we have other stuff to fall back on,” he said.