PHILIPSBURG, Sint Maarten – With recent media reports indicating that 25 persons have been granted long-lease land in the so-called Vineyard Heights area of Over The Bank, Party for Progress (PFP) Member of Parliament (MP) Raeyhon Peterson submitted questions to Minister of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure (VROMI) Egbert J. Doran on Wednesday to seek clarity about the developments.
According to the reports, approximately 50 persons were awarded parcels of long-lease land in the area in 2016, and received draft Ministerial Decrees from the VROMI Ministry that advised them to approach the Kadaster’s Office for certificates of admeasurement. Now this group may never receive their promised long-lease land, as the reports show that the majority of the 25 recently issued land grants were not part of the original 50.
This issue has been on MP Peterson’s radar for some time, with him posing questions to Minister Doran in Parliament meetings in June 2021. At the time, Minister Doran said that the process of issuing long-lease land to the original group was discontinued because “proper procedures” were not followed, specifically that then-VROMI Minister Angel Meyers had incorrectly issued the long-lease grants when the area was being contested in a court case.
“We inquired for legal advice, which we received from Landsadvocaat Gibson and Associates, where it indicated that, for instance, once you apply at a certain period in time and the time elapses [then it becomes null and void],” said Minister Doran in the Parliament meeting in June. “Based on that decree, it expired. So therefore we could not continue and the process was discontinued with those applicants.”
For MP Peterson, this response was insufficient, prompting him to ask on Wednesday if the original group was considered in the process of issuing new long-lease rights in the area.
“Can it then be stated that the Ministry of VROMI provided the previous applicants with a ‘grace period’ to contact the Ministry? If not, then did the Ministry reach out on its own to the 50 persons who also received the same document from Government with the intention to issue a parcel of land to them in long-lease? If so, what were the responses received?” added MP Peterson in his list of submitted questions to Minister Doran.
“For someone to receive a Ministerial Decree in hand and formally start the process of securing their land grant, all done with excitement at the prospect of a brighter future, only to now be ignored and passed over, is a discriminatory blow that no one should have to endure at the hands of their own government,” said MP Peterson. “This original group trusted the government to keep its word and the government failed horribly in doing so.”
Based on his experience as acting Head of Domain Affairs, MP Peterson is acutely aware that some requests for long-lease land have been on hold since the 1990s.
“The general assumption would be that older requests would be honoured above more recent, that is, the first come/first served principle. How many of the persons who recently received draft decrees were on the long-lease request registry prior to December 2019? Referring again to the advice received from Landsadvocaat Gibson, how did the Landsadvocaat advise that issuance of these parcels be handled?” asked MP Peterson to Minister Doran.
Similarly, MP Peterson also knows that parcels of long-lease land cannot be issued if infrastructure is not in place in the area. “Issuing land before there is infrastructure in place has caused the Ministry of VROMI legal issues in the past, ironically also in this exact area of Over The Bank. In light of this, has infrastructure finally been put in place in the area prior to issuing parcels?” questioned MP Peterson.
“While Minister Doran indicated that proper procedures were not followed in 2016, the way this situation has developed it is becoming clear that, as the VROMI Minister, he has also not created consistent procedures or followed through with fair decision-making,” said MP Peterson. “Lack of policy has been a classic excuse used by past VROMI Ministers but the ironic thing is that they themselves have to create it.”
MP Peterson is not the only local authority figure who has reservations about the recent granting of long-lease land in the area known as Vineyard Heights. Last week, Sint Maarten Ombudsman Gwendolien Mossel also expressed grave concerns and posed several questions to Minister Doran on the issue.
“I look forward to receiving answers to my questions and seeing the answers to the Ombudsman’s queries. I urge Minister Doran to reconsider this trajectory, which is sure to be detrimental to the interests of these concerned citizens as well as the government,” concluded MP Peterson. “The original group who were issued long-lease rights in 2016 deserve to have a fair outcome at the end of this affair, being treated with respect, dignity and equality.”