The Department of Public Lands has made available 88 agricultural homestead lots on Pagan since 2017, but no one has been eligible because of the law’s one-year residency requirement, according to DPL Secretary Marianne Concepcion-Teregeyo.
On Tuesday, Concepcion-Teregeyo asked House Committee on Natural Resources chair Rep. Antonio SN. Borja (R-Tinian) and Senate Resources, Economic Development and Programs chair Sen. Francisco M. Borja (R-Tinian) to consider a pending bill that will amend the law to remove the one-year residency requirement so that eligible applicants may be qualified to receive the first agricultural homesteads on Pagan.
In her letter to the Borjas, Concepcion-Teregeyo said if Public Law 16-50 is not amended, nobody will qualify for the 88 lots that DPL is making available on the island due to the residency requirement.
She asked both legislative committees to consider House Bill 21-43 in the form of HD3, HS1, that would amend part of Public Law 16-50 to provide eligibility for applicants interested in the village and agricultural homesteads in the Northern Islands.
She said DPL’s Homestead Division director Irene Torres has communicated with House Natural Resources Committee vice chair Rep. Joel Camacho (R-Saipan) often and, along the way, DPL has prodded the Legislature on the status of HB 21-43, HD3, HS1. The bill will amend the law to provide proper eligibility for people who wish to avail of the village and agricultural homesteading programs under DPL.
Camacho introduced House Bill 21-43 in April 2019 to the full body of the House and its was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources, which then made amendments to the bill and passed it in committee on June 11, 2019, in the form of House Draft 1. Camacho then introduced House Bill 21-43, HD1 on June 24, 2019, to the full House but it was recommitted back to the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Then-acting DPL secretary Irene T. Torres in May 2019 told Borja that, to date, DPL has only received one application for agricultural homestead in the Northern Islands since many interested Northern Islands descendants were ineligible due to P.L. 16-50. Torres said H.B. 21-43 would encourage former NI residents and their adult children to apply for village and agricultural homesteads. She said the bill will boost the resettlement of the Northern Islands, especially Pagan.
H.B. 21-43 provides that an applicant must be currently residing or have resided in the NI and must be born on or is a descendant of someone on the NNI and/or must be eligible to vote in NI elections.
Torres said the Legislature needs to specify in the bill, among other things, the minimum number of days that an applicant has been or have resided in order to establish legal residence.
HB 21-43 in the form of House Draft 2 proposes to remove language that may be considered discriminatory for people who wish to avail of such homesteads in the NI, as well as to include the requirement that all intended applicants must have resided in the NI for at least 45 days prior to applying.
In March 2019, then chief solicitor Charles E. Brasington issued an opinion, stating that the Commonwealth Code and the DPL’s Regulations prohibit DPL from issuing a homestead to an individual who does not meet the eligibility criteria.
Brasington said DPL has promulgated regulations that clearly require an individual to live in the NI for an entire year before being eligible for an agricultural homestead.
“No one meets the eligibility criteria. As such, there is no one that Department of Public Lands can grant a permit to,” he said.
The Commonwealth Code, Brasington said, prevents DPL from deviating from the one-year residence requirement.
Attorney General Edward Manibusan concurred with the chief solicitor’s opinion.
According to the Commonwealth Election Commission last month, there were six voters on Agrigan, one on Pagan, and three on Alamagan. CEC managed to get seven votes from the three islands.
CEC said the total number of voters in NI is 162, but most of them are currently residing on Saipan.