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Lease payments collected, not distributed to landowners

By Steve Limtiaco

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, June 22, 2009) -- The Guam Ancestral Lands Commission so far has collected about $400,000 from leases and licenses to compensate original landowners who never will get their land back, but it is unclear when that money will be paid out or to how many people.

The commission still hasn't created rules or regulations for the landowners trust, despite a law that requires it and despite the findings in a 2006 report by the Office of the Public Auditor. There are no rules for leases or licenses and no process for determining who should be paid or how much.

Land has been leased or licensed by the commission without any adopted rules, and several large parcels of Ancestral Lands Commission property in Dededo and Mangilao are in the process of being leased to the highest and best bidder. The target date for those leases is October and December of this year.

Benny Crawford, who is chairman and spokesman for a local landowner's task force, said he believes the process of leasing land to pay ancestral owners is problematic and should be scrapped.

"I don't think government can represent my best interest," Crawford said about the leases.

Land is better than cash, he said, and the government of Guam should instead identify land that can be transferred to the ancestral owners or their heirs.

The Guam Ancestral Lands Commission was created in 1999 to administer the transfer of excess federal land to its original owners. The military on Guam had downsized, leaving behind large tracts of excess land, and GovGuam's policy was to return it to its original owners, who had not been properly compensated during the condemnation process.

But GovGuam still is using some excess federal land, so the commission has been leasing or licensing some of the returned federal land --"Spanish crown land" --to earn money to eventually compensate those landowners. Spanish crown land is property that belonged to the former Spanish government on Guam and which therefore has no ancestral owners to claim it.

Crawford is chairman of a task force recently created by law to identify land, including crown land that can be transferred to the ancestral owners of property at Tiyan.

The Tiyan land -- about 1,400 acres -- was returned to Guam by the federal government as part of the former Naval Air Station Agana, but it was not returned to its original owners because the airport still is using it.

Guam law currently is setting up a land exchange only for Tiyan families, but Crawford said he believes the same process should be expanded to include all ancestral landowners whose land is being used by GovGuam.

As an example, he said, ancestral land along the back road to Andersen Air Force Base still is being held by GovGuam for future school construction.

If any ancestral land remains with GovGuam after land is distributed to ancestral owners, it can be leased to benefit those whose property still is being held by the federal government, such as the families who owned land at Naval Station, Crawford said.

Crawford's task force completed its work this month, and submitted a report to the Legislature June 9, recommending that 976.92 acres of Spanish crown land in Dededo and Mangilao be moved into a new "Tiyan Trust" so it can be given to the Tiyan families. The report states 37 heirs to Tiyan property have been identified.

Crawford said Gov. Felix Camacho now has until July 9 to submit a bill to lawmakers, which would transfer that property from the Ancestral Lands inventory to the new Tiyan Trust.

In the meantime, the Guam Ancestral Lands Commission continues to collect thousands of dollars each month from businesses or government agencies that use ancestral land. The money is deposited into a trust account at First Hawaiian Bank, with no plan for what to do with it. According to the 1999 Guam law that created the commission, the commission needs to adopt rules for the trust through the government's administrative adjudication process.

The commission has not adopted rules and it currently is not working on any, said commission board Chairwoman Anita Orlino, who said the commission is focusing its efforts on returning land to its original owners and generating as much money as possible for the trust.

She said the commission could draft rules and regulations "very soon," but she declined to say when that might happen.

"Right now, their (the board's) biggest concern is to build up the trust account," said commission Executive Director Ed Benavente.

The public auditor, in a 2006 report, was critical of the commission's decision to lease property without first adopting rules, and noted that licenses for property were issued "arbitrarily and inconsistently" with some licensees receiving "relatively favorable terms and conditions."

The year after the audit was released, the Ancestral Lands Commission entered into an agreement with the Guam Economic Development Authority, which has taken over the leasing process for crown land. Under the agreement, the ancestral lands board must give final approval to any lease.

Director Benavente said the commission has no expertise in leasing property, which is why it has been working with GEDA.

"They're expected to know what it is to lease," he said.

Leases for the use of ancestral land now are bid competitively by GEDA, which requires a minimum annual payment of at least 8 percent of the property's appraised value, among other compensation.

That's the standard lease amount in the real estate industry, said Mike Cruz, GEDA's real property division manager. Other standard lease requirements for ancestral land are: the payment of at least 2.5 percent of the gross annual business income from use of the property; and an 11 percent share of the gross rent paid by anyone who subleases the property. Those who offer to pay more get a higher score during GEDA's selection process, according to requests for proposals issued earlier this year by GEDA.

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