The Ministry of Works and Transport’s director of legal services Marvin Gonzales yesterday disclosed that some landowners in the path of the $221.7 million Curepe Interchange are hell-bent on becoming millionaires at the expense of taxpayers.
At a press conference at the Ministry of Works’ Port-of-Spain headquarters, Gonzales, who was joined by acting director of highways Navin Ramsingh, revealed that some landowners had put in claims “well over 300 per cent of their actual property values,” which was beyond the current market value of their land.
Gonzales cited a particular case where one landowner put in a claim of “over $20 million for their residential property. During the negotiation, it went down to $5 million. Such was the huge gap between what the commissioner of valuation was offering and what the residents are claiming.
“I don’t know what their intentions are. It seems as though the expectation of some of the residents was that because the State requires the land in order to execute its contractual duties, the State would be placed in a position where it would be prepared to pay any amount of monies that residents are prepared to claim for.”
He said the expectation of some residents “is to become millionaires” which simply cannot happen.
“In some cases, some residents are claiming commercial rate for residential properties. Of course, if they are doing that they have the responsibility to provide the necessary documentary proof and they have failed to do so,” Gonzales said.
Asked if the landowners had been trying to milk the State, Gonzales said the entire situation was “unfortunate.”
However, he said it would be administrative malpractice for the commissioner to pay claims well over what the evidence suggested.
The saga continued yesterday between the ministry and the landowners, who claimed in August they were given 14 days to vacate their premises. The residents are also up in arms with the ministry over the way in which the land acquisitions are being handled, as they condemned the Government for forcing them to accept between one third and one-fifth of their lands’ value through compulsory acquisition.
The ministry has been engaged in consultation and negotiations with stakeholders since 2014. The original project included 22 parcels of land for the interchange but this figure has since grown to 37, which includes residential, commercial, agricultural, state and privately owned properties.
Yesterday, Gonzales said in May 2018 a new Section 4 Order was served in order to allow the residents an opportunity to complete negotiations.
“To date, the commissioner of valuations has advised us that no progress was made with respect to these negotiations and there exists a huge gap between the proposal made by the commissioner of valuation and the offers made by the affected residents.”
He said the commissioner had since advised the residents to provide proof of the values of their properties for which they are negotiating. The ministry, Gonzales said, has three months to acquire the properties under the Land Acquisition Act to make the site available to the contractor.
“This site should have been cleared and made available before the end of 2017, which would result in huge cost overruns for the project. The State is now faced with the possibility of millions of dollars in potential claims,” Gonzales said, as he noted this would be the situation if the site is not made available to the contractor on time.
Despite this, Gonzales said the ministry was not backed into a corner with regards to its contractual obligations.
While the ministry has been exercising constraints and patience with the residents since 2015, Gonzales said “the ministry is making the decision to invoke only the options under the Land Acquisition Act” to acquire the lands needed for the project.
Under Section 5 of the act, Gonzales said the title of the properties can be vested in the State, or the ministry can issue a warrant to the Marshall of the High Court to put the owners “out of possession.”
Asked which option the ministry has considered, Gonzales said the were looking at both but would not evict the land owners.
The area to be acquired for the Curepe Interchange comprises 471.5 square metres. Each homeowner has to give up between one to 1.5 lots of land. The project is scheduled to be completed by July 2019.
Gonzales said the commissioner put forward offers between $150 to $250 per square foot for property owners’ lands, stating that only fair market value can be paid. The budget for the interchange land acquisition, Ramsingh said, was $85 million. However, Gonzales could not provide what was the collective claim put forward by the landowners.
Gonzales said they had heard that attorney Michael Rooplal, who was representing the landowners, had written to the ministry asking for a meeting but they were still awaiting Rooplal’s letter. However, he said they were willing to meet with all the representatives of the residents with a view of arriving at an amicable solution.
In a letter late yesterday Rooplal asked for an undertaking by the State that no steps will be taken to dispossess his clients pending negotiations. The letter was addressed to the ministry’s permanent secretary and mentioned yesterday’s press conference where the ministry alleged it had not received copies of his letters which he forwarded to them. These letters were dated September 6 and 7, he said.