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Gov't Warned Against Land Reform Overreach

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

ARAWAK Homes president yesterday warned the Government not to 'bite off more than it can chew' while supporting its renewed drive for land reform.

Franon Wilson told Tribune Business that "no company understands the need for land reform more than us", but he cautioned the Minnis administration not to implement measures it was unable or unwilling to enforce.

He pointed to the Planning and Subdivisions Act as one example of such overreach, adding that while the legislation's intentions were noble it never assigned the manpower and resources to properly administer/enforce its provisions. Disclosing that he could give "countless examples" where title and other related land woes had stifled economic and social development, Mr Wilson told Tribune Business: "I understand the need for land reform. No company understands it more than Arawak Homes and our group.

"But how fast we go needs to be looked at. The Government did a complete overhaul of the Planning and Subdivisions Act, but never put in the manpower to enforce and administer it. Every week some lawyers take the Government to court because it was never properly enforced.

"If there's one thing I'd invite the Government to do, it's looking at what steps it has to take before doing a sweeping overhaul, because if it's not going to hire the people and enforce it properly, it will lead to more lawsuits and problems down the road," he continued.

"Let's look at where we want to go and how we get there. Any step towards land reform is a good thing. Any time you want to get land reform is a good thing. But where do you want to end up, what's the system and finances allow us to do, and start mapping out the pieces of where we need to go."

Mr Wilson and Arawak Homes, who have suffered from the long-running land fraud perpetrated against themselves and hundreds of Bahamians in the Nassau Village/Pinewood Gardens area, was speaking after the Government unveiled its intentions to move forward with long-awaited reforms.

Elsworth Johnson, minister of state for legal affairs, told the House of Assembly that the Government was preparing a so-called 'White Paper' to outline its proposals, which include dusting-off the three-strong legislative package that was shelved by the last Ingraham administration and never revived by its immediate successor.

These are the the Land Adjudication Bill, the Registered Land Bill and the Law of Property Bill, all of which date from 2010. These were all designed to give commercial and residential real estate buyers greater certainty they had good title to their properties, ending the economic and social disruption frequently caused by problems in this area.

Creating a Bahamas Land Registry, which is what the Registered Land Bill seeks to do, 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. This, in turn, would boost efficiency and reduce issues associated with title problems.

Emphasising that he and Arawak Homes "look forward" to receiving the 'White Paper' and government proposals, and providing feedback on them, Mr Wilson told Tribune Business: "Land reform is something we in the Bahamas definitely need.

"The amount of people affected by it continues to grow and be a problem on a daily basis. Any step towards land registration and a land registry is a good thing."

Mr Wilson recalled the recent case of a person who had agreed to purchase a lot in an existing, approved subdivision and wanted Arawak Homes to build their home on the property.

These plans, though, ran into a major obstacle when a surveyor realised a neighbour had incorrectly "encroached" on to the property and fenced off a portion for themselves.

"The laws in the Bahamas are such that once you encroach on someone's property you can go to court to claim for that piece of land you've encroached upon," Mr Wilson added.

The deal was now in jeopardy a result of the encroachment, with the seller possibly having to accept a lower price and the purchaser wondering if it is worth the bother, given that they would have to go to Town Planning and "formerly sever" the encroached land.

"It's not going anywhere because of this issue," Mr Wilson said. "Land reform is needed, no question about that. But the Planning and Subdivisions Act is an example of how the Government brought something in without putting the resources behind it.

"It's been a challenge ever since. Let's look at where we want to go, pace ourselves and work out how we're going to get there."

The Land Adjudication Bill was an attempt to reform and do away with the concept of generation land, aiming to grant title over one acre to persons who can show they have been in uninterrupted possession of that real estate parcel for 12 years or more.

Persons in that situation will receive a Certificate of Title to that one acre, or possibly 1.5 acres in certain circumstances. Generation and commonage land are frequently found in the Family Islands, and it could help development in those areas.

But concerns were previously raised over the Land Adjudication Bill, particularly that land in excess of that size would go to the Government when generation land was regularised.

And fears were also raised about the accuracy of the Land Registry, given that the Government initially contemplated establishing it before all land was adjudicated - meaning all interests on a parcel would not be assessed before it was recorded.

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