Land swap deal made highway possible — PhillipsWednesday, May 10, 2017
BY ALPHEA SAUNDERS
The Opposition has offered an explanation in the fresh controversy surrounding acres of mainly prime Crown lands being given to the Chinese under a land-swap deal in a 50-year concession agreement with the Government of Jamaica for the construction of the north-south highway.Media reports of the absence of a valuation for 250 acres of land on the north coast that has already been transferred to China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) has also caught the attention of the contractor general, Dirk Harrison.
At a press conference held at his offices yesterday, Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips argued that without the land deal the highway would not have been built.
But he also explained that the acreage at Mammee Bay in St Ann — owned by the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) — which was identified by CHEC and agreed on by the Government for hotel development, had, in fact, been valuated at US$44 million by two companies: Allison Pitter and Company, and Easton Douglas and Company.
He said that this was separate from the general value of $2 million per acre which had been set at the outset of the agreement in 2011, and that head of the National Road Operating Constructing Company (NROCC) Ivan Anderson spoke to at last week's meeting of the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) of Parliament.
Dr Phillips explained that this general value had been set for the lands on which the highway would be constructed, and used as the benchmark value for the lands in the Government's arrangement with CHEC, but that at the start of the framework agreement no specific lands had been identified for transfer.
Under questioning, Anderson had told the PAAC that no valuation had been done for the 250 acres of coastal lands given to the Chinese for development, in lieu of money for the construction of the more than US$700-million north-south highway.
The Government has since been faced with intense criticism for what is seen as an untidy arrangement.
“It (the $2 million per acre value) was roughly to try to compensate, up to a specific amount, for the funds that would be needed,” the Opposition leader stated yesterday.
Anderson had reasoned that the coastal lands are being given to CHEC specifically to build over 2,000 hotel rooms, and that any other type of development would be in breach of the agreement. This is supposed to translate into a US$450-million investment.
Seeking to provide further clarification, Dr Phillips explained that the Government had, in fact, negotiated with the UDC to arrive at a suitable means of compensation before the land transfer, as the agency at the time had other income-earning plans for the real estate.
But he said he could offer no further details of what had happened with those negotiations due to the change of Government in February 2016.
“The whole purpose why we were entering into these arrangements was because the Government was short of cash, the Government in 2011 under the JLP (Jamaica Labour Party) Administration, and the Government in 2012 with a PNP (People's National Party) Administration. Ways had to be found to build the highway — without this land arrangement, which was arrived at by the previous Administration of the JLP, the highway would not have been built,” Dr Phillips stated.
He contended that the highway was a good deal for Jamaica.
“This highway cannot leave Jamaica. This highway, at the end of the concession period, reverts to the ownership of the people of Jamaica, and the hotels and other entities that are built will always be there for the people of Jamaica. I think Jamaica and the Jamaican people have benefited tremendously from having a modern 21st century highway, which has reduced the travel time from Kingston to the north coast…They have benefited from having a range of economic development possibilities come into being which would not have existed before,” he said.
The then JLP Administration engaged the Chinese on the north-south highway project after the original contractors, which built the east-west highway — Bouygues Travaux — abandoned the construction in 2008 due to geotechnical challenges with the Mount Rosser leg.
The Government had to reimburse the French company the US$120 million it had already invested in the construction, and an agreement was then signed with CHEC to complete the highway. It was decided that toll receipts alone would not provide CHEC sufficient return for its investment, and it was then agreed that the only way to make the project viable for both parties was to transfer 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of land to CHEC for development.
Another 600 acres have also been identified at Caymanas in St Catherine, for commercial and industrial space, and that lands at Golden Grove in St Ann is being eyed for the remaining 350 acres.
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