U.S. MILITARY NEGOTIATING WITH GUAM LANDOWNERS

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Expansion requires acquisition of public, private land

By Brett Kelman HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Jan. 11, 2010) – On Guam, the military is already negotiating with the three landowners whose property will most likely be absorbed into the new firing range on Guam's northeast coast.

On Thursday night, retired Maj. Gen. David Bice, executive director of the Joint Guam Program Office, said he was certain the landowners and the Department of Defense will reach an agreement that benefits everyone.

"We've talked to those landowners, and I am very confident that we can reach an agreement," Bice said. "I'm a landowner, I'm a farmer. I know about land rights and property rights ... I am not going to be involved with any process that takes other people's land."

Bice was so certain an agreement would be reached that he declined to discuss what would happen if parties didn't see eye to eye. He would not discuss "speculation."

Sen. Judith Guthertz, who is chairwoman of the Legislature's buildup committee, is not so confident the landowners will part with their property.

"I think he's wrong," Guthertz said. "I know some of the families he is speaking of."

Although Bice said only three landowners are likely to be affected by the construction of the firing range, land acquisition has quickly become one of the most combative issues brought on by the coming military buildup.

The buildup will require the Department of Defense to expand its borders and place access restrictions for civilians to some land it owns. At the center of this issue is a large tract of land near Pagat Cave where a firing range will be built.

On Dec. 29, 2009, more than 50 people attended a public hearing on a legislative resolution against the condemnation of local property. More than 30 of them spoke in favor of the resolution, while only one spoke against it.

Some of them are concerned residents who have land in the valley area near Marbo Cave, Bice said. They are "inappropriately worried" their land will be acquired, but it's unlikely, he added.

The ridgeline is the primary site for the firing range and the valley is the backup. And the ridgeline is preferred by a wide margin, Bice said.

According to the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), nearly all of the land on the ridgeline belongs to GovGuam, not individuals.

On Friday, Guthertz said it didn't matter if the military wanted the land of one family or a thousand. They had an island full of support, she said.

Many of Guam's residents are still angry the military took land from local people after World War II and didn't fairly compensate them, she said. The island felt indebted and the military took advantage of them, she said.

This frustration runs deep, she said.

"They just really hate the idea because they feel there was a lot of injustice done," Guthertz said.

Although some protesters may not own any land that will be acquired for the coming military buildup, they are still concerned their fellow islanders will be taken advantage of again, Guthertz said.

"(Bice) shouldn't assume because it's only one to three families they will voluntarily agree to sell or lease their land, even if he has a hammer over their head ..." Guthertz said.

If the military makes an offer that the private landowners actually want, no one should object to the transfer of land, Guthertz said.

The military must also acquire some public land from GovGuam that isn't owned by any single resident but is shared by the community.

The Defense Department is already discussing the acquisition of this land with local leaders, like the governor and senators, to broker a deal, Bice said.

"Everyone is looking for the highest and best use in terms of any potential compensation for that," Bice said. "Having had discussions with everyone -- with all stakeholders -- I am convinced that we are going to reach an agreement."

For John Sarmiento, a discussion with local leaders isn't good enough.

Sarmiento, 17, is a member of We Are Guahan, a group protesting the buildup and draft EIS.

During a public hearing on Thursday night, Sarmiento said the buildup hadn't been planned on the terms of average citizens.

The buildup became inevitable before it was ever discussed with the public, he said.

"It was an order handed down, and then we were informed. We were never part of the dialogue like they say we were," Sarmiento said. "Even if the Legislature or the governor does represent the people, I think they failed on their part to really connect with us."

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