TO AVAIL OF HOMESTEADS ON PAGAN
The House of Representatives adopted Tuesday a bicameral conference committee’s report that proposes to remove a requirement to have one-year residency to the Northern Islands in order to avail of agricultural homesteads lots that the Department of Public Lands has made available on Pagan.
With 18 representatives voting “yes” and only Rep. Franklin R. Babauta (Ind-Saipan) voting “no,” the House passed House Bill No. 21-43, in the form of HD3, HS2, SD1, CCS1.
Rep. Joseph Lee Pan Guerrero (R-Saipan) was absent at the session.
The Senate had already adopted the conference committee’s report.
Under the bill, an applicant must be registered to vote in the Northern Islands elections prior to applying and must either reside or have resided in the Northern Islands or be born in or be a descendant of a person born in the Northern Islands as indicated in a valid birth certificate or court document.
The bill provides that priority shall be granted to those born on or who are descendants of someone born in the Northern Islands.
Rep. Joel C. Camacho (R-Saipan), who introduced the bill in April 2019, said the conferees unanimously agreed to include the repeal and re-enact language to remove any perceptions of discrimination but yet prioritize those born in the Northern Islands or a descendant of such person.
Camacho said by inserting the language, the applicant can still avail of such homestead if they were residence or residing in the Northern Islands or born in the Northern Islands or are descendants of such individuals.
He said even if an applicant does meet those requirements, he/she must be a registered voter in the Northern Islands elections prior to applying.
Asked why he voted against the adoption of the report, Rep. Babauta in an interview said during the discussions of the bill it appears that there are still issues with eligibility.
Babauta said the eligibility is going to be a question from their constituents who have lived up in the Northern Islands in the past, have established residency in the past and now live here on Saipan at different districts.
“I think there should be more public hearings on to this one and listen to their concerns and how they can be eligible. And I think that is missing,” he said.
In August 2019, after much deliberation and amendments, the House transmitted the bill to the Senate.
The Senate made some amendments and passed the legislation on Feb. 10, 2020.
On Feb. 18, 2020, the House rejected the Senate’s version. House Speaker Blas Jonathan T. Attao (R-Saipan) then referred the bill to conference committee composed of Rep. Camacho as chairman and Reps. Luis John DLG Castro (Ind-Saipan) and Joseph A. Flores (Ind-Saipan) as members.
Senate President Victor B. Hocog (R-Rota) also appointed the Senate’s conferees with Sen. Vinnie Vinson F. Sablan (Ind-Saipan) as chairman and Sens. Justo S. Quitugua (R-Saipan) and Sixto K. Igisomar (R-Saipan) as members.
The conferees met jointly last Dec. 11 and resolved their differences.
During discussions for adoption of the conference committee’s report, Rep. Tina Sablan (D-Saipan) said they support this legislation, the clarity and the flexibility, but that the work does not end there.
“I do think it would be important for this body to continue to monitor the implementation of this program and ensure that those public lands and the aspirations of the Northern Islands residents are property attended to,” Sablan said.
DPL Secretary Marianne Concepcion-Teregeyo recently informed the Legislature that DPL has made available 88 agricultural homestead lots in Pagan since 2017, but no one has been eligible because of the law’s one-year residency to the island requirement.
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 the 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 homestead in Pagan.
Concepcion-Teregeyo said if Public Law 16-50 does not get amended, DPL will continue to make available the 88 lots, but residents will be unqualified due to such residency requirements.
In May 2019, then acting DPL secretary Irene T. Torres told Borja that to date, DPL has only received one application for agricultural homestead as many interested Northern Islands descendants were ineligible due to P.L. 16-50.
Torres said H.B. 21-43 would encourage former Northern Islands 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.
In March 2019, then chief solicitor Charles E. Brasington issued an opinion, stating that the Commonwealth Code and DPL’s regulations prohibit DPL from issuing a homestead to an individual who does not meet the eligibility criteria established by law.
Brasington said DPL has promulgated regulations that clearly require an individual to live in the Northern Islands 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.
According to the Commonwealth Election Commission last November, there were six voters on Agrigan, one on Pagan, and three on Alamagan.
CEC said the total number of voters in th Northern Islands is 162, but most of them are currently residing on Saipan.