By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Arawak Homes’ president yesterday agreed that the Bahamas needed to “bite the bullet” and switch to a registered land system, in a bid to prevent frauds that have victimised hundreds of real estate purchasers.
Franon Wilson told Tribune Business that while establishing such a system, and the Land Registry to oversee it, was “a mammoth task”, there was significant consensus among real estate industry professionals that this was the direction the Bahamas had to take.
Speaking after Arawak Homes’ latest legal victory in a three-decade long battle to safeguard its ownership of land in the Sir Lynden Pindling Estates area, Mr Wilson said a registered land system might prevent Bahamians “falling into the same trap”.
Tribune Business reported on Tuesday how a group of land speculators, aided by some unscrupulous attorneys, created a nightmare for hundreds of Bahamian families when they fraudulently obtained a Certificate of Title to 156 acres legitimately owned by Arawak Homes.
While the developer fought a 12-year legal battle to overturn that Certificate, the speculators rapidly sold the land - which they did not own, or possess clean title for - to numerous unsuspecting Bahamian desperate for a chance to ‘own their piece of the rock’.
Despite offering to settle with all victims of the fraud, Arawak Homes has frequently been forced to defend its ownership of the property, located in the Nassau Village/Pinewood Gardens area, against those who are illegally occupying the land.
Echoing previous calls for the Bahamas to enact fundamental reforms to its land title/ownership system, Mr Wilson said a Land Registry offered the best potential protection against similar real estate frauds.
“That is something, for the most part, where a significant amount of people agree that is the way,” he told Tribune Business of a registered land system.
“That will be a mammoth task; the resources that will have to be put into it will be phenomenal, but at some point the country has to bite the bullet and do it, and eliminate the risk of people falling into this same trap over and over.”
The former Ingraham administration developed a three-Bill package involving the creation of a Land Registry, with the goal of providing commercial and residential real estate buyers with greater certainty that they have good title to their purchases.
However, the Land Adjudication Bill, the Registered Land Bill and the Law of Property Bill were then sent back to the Law Reform Committee and other government agencies for further review, and little has been heard of them since.
A proper Land Registry - and registration system - would eliminate the need for attorneys to conduct expensive, time consuming title searches that are sometimes prone to error.
The Bahamas’ current land ownership system is effectively ‘a lawyer’s dream’, with attorneys having to search the Registry of Records and the courts to determine whether real estate parcels have clear title.
It is difficult for members of the public to perform such searches themselves, especially since numerous documents are often missing and/or not in order.
Creating a Bahamas Land Registry would move the Bahamian real estate and conveyancing market away from one based on “first to record” the title deeds.
A Land Registry would contain all information relating to a specific parcel of land in one database, including its location, dimensions, ownership interests and all encumbrances, such as mortgages and other liens/charges.
Its creation would thus enable the Bahamian public to better conduct title searches themselves, and might have exposed the Quieting Titles fraud that was perpetrated in the Sir Lynden Pindling Estates area.
“In the absence of a Land Registry, there may have to be interim steps to safeguard people and make sure situations like this don’t happen again,” Mr Wilson told Tribune Business. “This is a case study all by itself.”
Tribune Business understands that many of the Sir Lynden Pindling Estates victims were encouraged into the purchase by family and friends, and did not realise the ‘cut price’ deals being offered by the speculators were a warning sign or ‘red flag’.
Many also failed to hire attorneys to conduct title searches - something that would have enabled them to sue their advisers for negligence, and obtain compensation, when the fraud was uncovered.
As a result, multiple Bahamian families have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on their largest-ever investment (their home), creating a major financial exposure when they realise they do not own their land.
Mr Wilson agreed that the fraud victims’ situation required a major public policy intervention by the Government which, he argued, also bore significant responsibility for their plight.
Despite knowing that Arawak Homes at least had competing claims to the property, Mr Wilson said numerous government ministries, corporations and agencies proceeded to build infrastructure on the developer’s land.
Building permits and occupancy certificates were also issued, with Mr Wilson arguing that the Government’s actions encouraged fraud victims to believe they had legitimate title, complicating the developer’s efforts to negotiate a settlement with them.
“The impact of this situation definitely begs for something to be done at the public policy level,” the Arawak Homes president said.”I find it hard to believe that will not be well-received by the people who have been affected.
“The Government has to take some significant responsibility for this as well. All of this would not have happened if, one, the courts did not issue the Certificate of Title when they did.
“Two, BEC went on to Arawak Homes’ property and hooked people up with electricity infrastructure. The Ministry of Works was paving on Arawak Homes’ property,” Mr Wilson continued.
“We had an injunction against Town Planning and all of them not to come on Arawak Homes’ property. They continued to come on. The Ministry of Works was issuing final occupancy and building certificates.
“You have people out there who find ways to manipulate and the system and the courts, but the Government has to share a significant portion of the responsibility.”
Confirming that the Sir Lynden Pindling Estates fraud had impacted “hundreds” of Bahamians, with at least 100 properties illegally built on Arawak Homes’ land, Mr Wilson pointed to the individual and family tragedies that have resulted.
“When you’re dealing with hundreds of people, and add in the value of those homes, it’s a significant amount of money,” he told Tribune Business.
“When you look at homes being people’s biggest investment, in some cases this could wipe out all the equity some people have and put them in a deeper hole.”