𝐋𝐚𝐜𝐤 𝐨𝐟 𝐕𝐑𝐎𝐌𝐈 𝐏𝐨𝐥𝐢𝐜𝐲 𝐕𝐢𝐜𝐭𝐢𝐦𝐢𝐳𝐞𝐬 𝐌𝐚𝐧𝐲 𝐢𝐧 𝐆𝐨𝐯𝐞𝐫𝐧𝐦𝐞𝐧𝐭 𝐋𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐃𝐢𝐬𝐭𝐫𝐢𝐛𝐮𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧 𝐏𝐚𝐫𝐭 𝟏
A land saga at ‘Vineyard Heights’ (proposed housing development in Over the Bank) is currently brewing due to 25 persons receiving long lease parcels that were also allotted to 54 persons in 2016. The situation is technical because the issuance of government land (erfpacht) has no clear policy. This leads to the Minister of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure (VROMI) ultimately deciding who gets land. That lack of policy eliminates checks and balances. After 10 ministers of VROMI, there is still no change. This means the Minister can decide whether a new applicant can lease government land over someone who applied over 10 years ago. It also means there is a lack of transparency and accountability guidelines a policy would provide. Currently, there are requests for lease land before 2000. The exact number of requests is unclear however, it is commonly expected to be in the hundreds.
Vineyard Heights is a housing development to be established in the Over the Bank area. The development was introduced during the 2021 budget debate. According to Minister of VROMI Egbert Doran, the operations after issuing the land will follow with “a government-run foundation that will then manage the land and develop the land which then can seek financing.” There’s no definite timeline for the project at the moment. However, Minister Doran stated a public tender is upcoming to begin developing the infrastructure of the land. Former Minister of VROMI Angel Meyers received negative advice on granting parcels of land in the same area due to there being no infrastructure in place. Unfortunately, the Minister also distributed parcels while the court case was still in session. Persons received a signed and stamped draft Ministerial decree stating the government’s intent to grant them land. They were told it is their choice to proceed and finalize obtaining the land. This first includes a certificate of admeasurement (meetbrief) from the Kadaster. After obtaining the meetbrief, applicants returned to VROMI with a copy of the meetbrief to finalize the decree. After obtaining a definite decree, they can proceed to the notary for the deed. The letter that was given to the recipients also states, “The Ministry of VROMI will make every effort on behalf of the Country Sint Maarten to issue the right of long lease to you in good order.” But it appears that the Ministry’s efforts on behalf of Country Sint Maarten are determined by which Minister is in charge at that time.
𝐖𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐞 𝐢𝐭 𝐛𝐞𝐜𝐨𝐦𝐞𝐬 𝐜𝐨𝐦𝐩𝐥𝐞𝐱
The possible saga lies in the fact that several people received intent from a government minister to grant them land. They even went as far as paying the fees at the Kadaster and notary. To their dismay, in the granting of these “new” lots, they were not considered. Minister Doran’s presentation of the Vineyard Heights housing development was made on June 28, however, the advice to issue the 25 persons was given on June 25. The meetbrieven that the 25 new persons are to receive are also alleged to partially be the same meetbrieven that the previous group of recipients paid for back in 2016 under the then-Minister Meyers.
Again due to lack of transparency and policy, persons previously interested and legally and financially vested were not considered or included. Nevertheless, Minister Doran stated during his budget presentation, “of course, we’re still seeking the most feasible way to deal with that situation, I find it was a very unfortunate situation which is my personal opinion.” This was in response to a question from Member of Parliament Raeyhon Peterson who questioned Doran on what will happen to the persons who received a draft decree while taking into consideration that some also already went and paid for their meetbrief.
Doran further stated proper procedures were not followed by Meyers and the process was discontinued. He added that the Ministry inquired for legal advice that noted once an individual applied, the decree lasts for a period of six (6) months. During the budget presentation, Doran also added “a online website will be launched soon with the aim for all parties that are interested to obtain information on the development projects status, in addition, to be able to sign up for additional information.”
Sources who wish to maintain confidentiality confirmed that a court case is on the way. The lack of policy also resulted in former Minister of VROMI Christopher Emmanuel (currently independent MP) being arrested. His arrest related to issuing land along the Pondfill strip. The consequence besides prosecution is civilians being duped by the lack of sound policy. It is widely expressed in the community that homeownership is a desire for many. It’s a significant component of St. Martin’s culture. However, the situation highlights the wider housing crisis and the need for accountability in the management of land.
Minister of VROMI Egbert Doran cleared the air on the current saga relating to the proposed housing development in Over the Bank- Vineyard Heights. During an interview with Lady Grace on PJD2 last week, Doran stated, “it is unfortunate, it is bad that those individuals were dragged through this muddy process because it’s not their fault.”
“I will do everything in my power to try to right that wrong.” He also discussed the legal advice he received before making the project public. However, some of the recommendations were not executed. The advice was issued on May 11, 2021.
The saga begins with former Minister of VROMI Angel Meyers when he provided a letter of intent to grant land to 54 persons in an area of Over the Bank. However, that took place during a court dispute over the land. Meyers also received negative advice and granted parcels while the land had no infrastructure in place. Some persons paid the Kadaster fees, and half of the notarial fee. They were told by the notary when the decree is finalized the notary would complete the process.
Nevertheless, persons received a signed and stamped draft decree in 2016 that stated the Ministry intends to grant them parcels “in good order as soon as a verdict is rendered by the court in favor of the Government.” The executive branch changed before the verdict went in favor of the government. Minister Doran also allotted the land while no infrastructure is in place but mentioned last month that a public bid for infrastructural development is forthcoming. During the interview Doran stated three (3) former VROMI ministers left the situation unaddressed which is why he first sought legal counsel.
Government’s counsel, Gibson & Associates, recommended the Minister to create an “objective selection process.” The selection criteria included for example, applicants who actively followed up on their request, those who do not own land elsewhere and persons with full time jobs earning a minimum gross of NAF 3000. The criteria is detailed in a VROMI document. The advice also suggested the Minister to implement a policy where applications unpursued for a year would not be processed. Doran was further recommended to have it “publicly announced in the local written media.” That did not take place. It is also unclear if a policy was started.
During the interview Grace asked Doran if the 54 persons were called prior to announcing the project. A yes or no answer wasn’t provided. He responded by stating that’s why he sought legal counsel because it’s an organizational matter. Doran added “Because when you call, if I go oh, come in, what am I going to tell you… I cannot just call you in; hey come lets have a conversation because everything that I say in that conversation can and will be used against me. I realized that hey this is a serious problem.” His statement referenced the Ministry and not a Minister being responsible.
However, the advice stated, “there may be some risk that some of these applicants may complain that Government, without forewarning, has instituted a policy that their applications would not be processed.” The advice repeated the suggestion to announce the policy publicly and “give applicants who have not pursued their applications within said period of one year, a period of two weeks to indicate if they are still interested.” The reason for this suggestion was to “neutralize to a certain extent, complaints from certain applicants that Government has without warning implemented a policy not to process their applications.”
In the interview the Minister added that the total development for Vineyard Heights will allow about 150 people to own homes. In addition to the 25 lots issued, there will be 18 duplexes and six (6) towers with a total of 98 units. The Minister mentioned discussions are ongoing about a government real estate management company which would have a Homeowners association fee and manage the whole property.
Regarding the 54 persons, Doran also said, “I want to find a way to still accommodate them to the best of my ability because is it at no fault to them.” He said they will receive preference in the proposed development. He also mentioned that many of the 54 also owned land. Doran added that he is not opposed to their ambition and said “In my opinion it makes much more sense to award it to persons who do not have a opportunity- might never have a opportunity because things are getting more difficult.” According to the Minister, 90% of the 25 persons are civil servants.
The challenge remains in persons being affected by the lack of policy. The wider issue is also the high demand for housing and availability of affordable homes. There are hundreds of requests for government land at the ministry. According to Doran there are also thousands of applicants at the St. Maarten Housing Development Foundation (SMHDF).
𝐋𝐚𝐜𝐤 𝐨𝐟 𝐕𝐑𝐎𝐌𝐈 𝐏𝐨𝐥𝐢𝐜𝐲 𝐕𝐢𝐜𝐭𝐢𝐦𝐢𝐳𝐞𝐬 𝐌𝐚𝐧𝐲 𝐢𝐧 𝐆𝐨𝐯𝐞𝐫𝐧𝐦𝐞𝐧𝐭 𝐋𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐃𝐢𝐬𝐭𝐫𝐢𝐛𝐮𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧 𝐏𝐚𝐫𝐭 𝟑
~𝑸𝒖𝒆𝒔𝒕𝒊𝒐𝒏𝒂𝒃𝒍𝒆 𝑩𝒊𝒅𝒅𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝑷𝒓𝒐𝒄𝒆𝒔𝒔~
While the allotment of land and lack of policy over the Vineyard Heights (Over the Bank) housing project became a buzz in the community, the actual beginning of the project appears faulty. The project became public during the budget debate in Parliament on June 28, 2021 with a video of 3D renderings done by Atys Architecture. The execution of the project idea began on Friday 25, September 2020 with an invited bid to Access NV (ANV), DAM Caribbean (DC) and Atys Architecture (AA). However, the bid was given to Atys Architecture which initially proposed to do the renderings for free on the day the bids had to be opened. That was on October 19, 2020. AA returned to VROMI with a proposal on February 3, 2021- over three (3) months later with a price tag of NAF 3000. When called about the project, the architect of AA stated the original price for such work would be $15,000 to $20,000 which is NAF 27,000 to NAF 36,000.
Leading up to the date for submissions, a representative from Atys requested more information and asked for a meeting to be held at his office on September 28. DC’s representative asked if it was possible to have a digital meeting and also requested more information. VROMI then sent a reply to all three companies for a session to answer all their questions at 11 AM on Friday October 9. DC’s representative requested the PDF of the concept design infrastructure after the meeting date. On the day of the bid- October 19- that information along with answers to DC’s questions were not yet received. A cabinet member of the Minister of VROMI then forwarded the information before 10 AM. Just before 3 PM DC’s representative replied and stated he does not recognize the minutes sent by VROMI. He also inquired about the origin of the PDF lot view which had no heading or intro. He also asked if the submission date was postponed. DC’s representative did not show up to the bid opening later that day.
At 4 PM on October 19 ANV and AA came to the opening. ANV bid was NAF 46,800. However, although the two companies submitted their offer and the bid was over- AA returned in February 2021 with an offer. According to a VROMI document “ATYS Architectural was of more advantage and beneficial based on the fact that they performed the renderings and future development of the project on a pro-bono cost to show there willingness to be involved with the project. It was clearly made known to ATYS Architectural that this would not the intention and an offer must be presented indicating cost of renderings and all relevant productions.” It also mentioned “clear distinction of the two companies were established with the presentation, whereby ATYS’s presentation was more modern and of a better quality standard. The document continues with, “Further cost related to the architect on the project will have to seek approval of Finance and the Minister of Vromi. The related cost shall be clearly defined in working documents and drawings which will be made known to the Minister and COM for approval.”
During a phone conversation with AA architect, Leano Miceli, he stated the price for the rendering was a special price “because I want to be a partner in the project.” Miceli said the price portrays AA’s desire to contribute to St. Maarten. “It’s a symbolic price.” Nevertheless, his initial response to whether NAF 3000 is the price for such a rendering was “no no, it’s much more.” AA’s work includes Jordan Village, Aqua Towers and Starz City Casino among other projects.
According to Miceli, “the team of- around the VROMI head- tell me if he go with you- he would like you to be a partner in the project. I said ok.” He did not mention who he referred to as VROMI head. It is unclear why AA was allowed to return after the bid opening ended. AA was awarded the assignment on June 25, 2021 before the project announcement on June 28. The advice to grant the 25 persons parcels was also on June 25.
Several questions were sent to the Minister, such as why wasn’t it a public bid and whether approval for additional funds requested by AA were granted. All questions sent for responses were not answered.
Premiered Sep 27, 2021 — Ralph Cantave
St. Maarten Ombudsman Speaks On Over the Bank Saga, Systemic Investigations and 2020 Report | TNBTN