This is in response to Mayor Apatang’s comments on HB 19-79 as published on Sept. 22, 2015, in the Marianas Variety titled “Saipan mayor opposes bill to limit DPL authority.”
The intent of HB 19-79 is to limit DPL’s authority in leasing public lands from 5 hectares to 1 hectare and from 25 years to 5 years. Any more will require legislative approval. At present, DPL is allowed to lease up to 5 hectares or 50,000 sq. meters of land to outside investors. HB 19-79 aims to limit the amount of land being leased to no more than 1 hectare or 10,000 sq. meters.
The mayor claims that the bill “strikes at the heart of the homestead program.” However, I beg to differ. HB 19-79 will protect the homestead program and ensure that vital, prime lots are available to future generations of the CNMI. The reason that the homestead program was put on hold was to reassess the amount of available public lands, primarily on Saipan. There are over 3,000 homestead applications currently on a waiting list. In my opinion, DPL has been careless with the leasing of public lands. On one hand, they say there is not enough land for homestead, yet they continue to lease large quantities of public lands to outside investors. HB 19-79 came about after DPL leased 10 hectares of public land in Marpi to a foreign investor. How did they do this when they are only allowed to lease up to 5 hectares with the current law? They split the land in two. The same investor leased two separate properties, both at 49,999 sq. meters, just enough to make it legal. In another case, over 150 hectares was leased on Tinian for under $3 per sq. meter. Not only does DPL find loopholes like this, MPLT also does not receive the full faith amount of proceeds from these leases as required by the Constitution. Now I ask myself this question: Is this the kind of practice that Mayor Apatang favors?
The mayor also claims that this bill “sends a message that past violations will be condoned.” On the contrary, that is exactly what HB 19-79 is trying to correct. The mayor’s opposition to this bill clearly shows that he is encouraging the current practice of violation by DPL. I, instead, am trying to find a solution to this malpractice. The mayor also claims that with this bill, “the Legislature may get too involved in the development of a land lease contract.” In other words, he thinks that the Legislature will micro-manage DPL. It is not the intent of the Legislature to micro-manage anyone; in fact it is impossible to micromanage with 29 members in the CNMI Legislature. HB 19-79 will create a check and balance system for these leases and will ensure that they are of fair market value.
HB 19-79 has been reviewed and approved by the House legal counsel, assuring its legality. I applaud the mayor for bringing up his concerns. However, I would like to assure him and the people of the CNMI that the main intention of this bill is to protect the amount of public lands and safeguard it for our future generations.
Rep. Roman C. Benavente
19th Legislature, Capital Hill