What would you do, if you bought a piece of property, then you find out it belongs to someone else? Some may call that a land scam. But what if everything about the sale and the purchase was legit? You got a title report that shows a certificate of title without encumbrance from the seller. At every push of a stamp at the Guam Department of Land Management, every legal document was accepted and recorded. You paid for it. You own it.
And then GovGuam takes it.
Enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, under its Fifth Amendment, is the clause that no “private property shall be taken for public use, without just compensation.” It’s one of those precepts of our republic that separates the modern world from communism and totalitarian rule.
As with every great land scam on Guam – and land scams have been going on for centuries here – there’s a long and sordid back story to what is perhaps the most significant land dispute in this region in decades.
This is the Harmon Annex, just meters from Two Lovers Point. Decades ago, the U.S. Air Force built a sewage system on a small tract here that eventually began to pump raw sewage out into the Philippine Sea, which is just beyond the cliff here.
In the 1970s, President Nixon created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and even the military could not dodge its oversight. In 1980, the Air Force leased the property that would become known as Lot 10184-7 to GovGuam for the improvement of a Northern District Wastewater Treatment Plant. Gov. Paul Calvo signed the General Purpose Lease in February 1980, for a term until 2005 with one option to renew for another 25 years. In it, the military was indemnified from any liability arising from the property.
Then, in May that year, the federal government granted GovGuam an easement to the property.
The environmental and capacity concerns were non-existent to minimal at worst throughout the 1980s, until the economic boom and the rise of the Tumon visitor district, and the housing construction in Dededo and Yigo began to take its toll.
On October 6, 1994, the young freshman congressman from Guam, Robert Underwood, secured the passage of Public Law 103-339, the Guam Excess Lands Act. More than 3,200 acres of prime property, about 10 percent of which encompassed the Harmon Annex, was returned to Guam with a caveat – the lands had to be used for a public benefit. In the Senate report of that statute, Congress made clear that returning the land to its pre-condemnation owners did not constitute a public benefit.
Then-Gov. Joseph Ada reminded the Twenty-second Guam Legislature of this fact, when he signed Public Law 22-145 on December 29, 1994, days before leaving office. That law made it the policy of the territory to give those 3,200 acres to the heirs of the pre-condemnation, or what we know as the ancestral lands owners. At the time, the lands were given to the Chamorro Land Trust Commission for proper disposition.
On July 23, 1997, following the creation of the Guam Waterworks Authority to replace the Public Utilities Agency of Guam, GovGuam executed a Grant Deed with GWA, turning over all water and wastewater infrastructure properties to the autonomous water agency. Page 32 of the deed identifies the easement and the Northern District Wastewater Treatment Plant as among the properties given to GWA. Five pages later, the Grant Deed specifies that GWA “expressly acknowledges the provisions of… Public Law 22-145, Public Law 23-23, and Public Law 23-141.”
The Grant Deed required GWA to covenant “that all provisions of these laws will be respected in accordance with the land disposal requirements of said laws.”
Public Law 22-145 is about the return of the lands to the heirs of the pre-condemnation owners. Public Law 23-23 contains a provision that states if any of the land to be claimed by ancestral claimants already are under public use, “In such circumstances the government of Guam shall make good faith efforts to derive a means of compensation for continued public use of such lands.”
These laws, created in the visionary days of both the Ada and Gutierrez administrations, represent the lion’s share of public land policy on Guam. And every elected official on Guam, from our congressman and former congresswoman to our governor to our senators and attorneys general have all been on the same page – defending the so-called rights of the ancestral land claimants and private property owners – until very recently.
We’ll get to that story another day. Back to 1997, when GovGuam granted the property to GWA.
Two years later, on June 9, 1999, the Legislature created the Guam Ancestral Lands Commission and placed title to all the lands CLTC was to return through the ancestral lands process into the Ancestral Lands Bank.
In 2001, the U.S. EPA sued GWA for, among other things, dumping raw sewage into the ocean.
In 2004, following due diligence and a succession of legal documents and processes, the GALC quitclaimed most of the Harmon Annex to the heirs of its pre-condemnation owner – Jose Martinez Torres. Over the next two years, the Torres Estate sold most of the properties, including Lot 10184-7, where the Northern District Wastewater Treatment Plant is located, to Younex, a developer.
In 2006, the State Department announced an agreement with Japan to move Marine forces off Okinawa and reposition them on Guam, in a major global realignment of the U.S. Armed Forces. Underlying the movement is the commitment to improve just one piece of civilian infrastructure – the Northern District Wastewater Treatment Plant. By representations made by the U.S. Government, the government of Japan is made to believe the property, where the plant sits, is free and clear of title issues.
In 2008, surveyor Frank Castro drew up and recorded a map that included the boundaries of Lot 10184-7 and the surrounding lots within the Harmon Annex.
In 2014, Deputy Registrar of Titles Andrew Santos issued a Certificate of Title showing Younex owned the land where the Northern Wastewater Treatment Plant is situated. That same year, CoreTech International acquired all of Younex’s Guam holdings, including Lot 10184-7.
By this time, GWA was going out into the bond market to borrow money to, among other things, improve the island’s sewer system. They never disclose to creditors that there is an issue with their most valuable asset – Lot 10184-7.
In 2017, in a vain attempt to remedy the matter, GWA commissioned Duenas, Camacho, and Associates to draw up and record a new map of Lot 10184-7. That map moves and extends the boundaries of the property.
In 2018, Michael Borja, then-director of Land Management, sued CTI in the Superior Court of Guam along the premise that his agency erroneously issued a Certificate of Title that essentially shows CTI owns Lot 10184-7.
For all the years CTI owned the property, and even through the first days of the litigation, the developer did nothing to stop or so much as interrupt GWA’s operation of the sewage treatment plant. It wasn’t until GWA bulldozed CTI’s fenceline and encroached on over an acre of the surrounding property that CoreTech had enough.
We spoke with CTI executive Henry Taitano, who took us on a tour of the Harmon Annex while construction on the treatment plant was occurring.