The Lamaha Gardens playground which residents are engaged in a battle to retrieve after a controversial sale more than a year ago was undervalued by around $175M.
Residents who represent the Lamaha Gardens Community Co-operative Society Limited, told Stabroek News that before the land was sold off for $29M, its size was also understated by 22,000 square feet.
The quiet sale of the land beginning during the Christmas season of 2012 has evoked the outrage of residents and led to public concerns that employees of several state bodies colluded in the disposal of the property. By way of summons, residents of the Lamaha Gardens area have moved to the courts to retrieve the property but they are also non-plussed as they said that the government had reneged on its promise to have the land returned to them. Attorney General Anil Nandlall has since said that only a judicial process can reverse the sale of the land.
The plot of land, located at 142 Durbana Square and Marudi Street, was sold on January 13, 2013 to a businessman for the sum of $29M. Residents have argued that the playground rightfully belongs to the community co-op and was unlawfully sold and transported to the businessman.
Stabroek News understands that a valuation of the land was done by a valuation officer after a visit on November 17, 2012 who said that the area of land valued was 11,980 square feet with a market value of $25.5M. However, executive member of the committee of residents addressing the matter, Ronald Alli said that the land was understated by 22,000 square feet and underestimated by $175M on the valuation certificate which was issued on November 22, 2012.
Alli had told a gathering of residents in the community at a specially convened meeting held at the playground on January 22, 2014 that they have since commenced legal proceedings by way of summons to set aside the transaction. He had also said that police investigations had recommended that charges be laid against several persons for collusion in the sale of the land but that nothing had happened.
Following a February 17th, 2014 editorial in Stabroek News on the sale of the land, Attorney General Nandlall dispatched a letter to this newspaper on the same day saying said that as soon as the matter was drawn to the attention of Cabinet, certain instructions were issued and immediate actions were taken.
An investigation, he said, was launched into the involvement of the office of the Cooperative Deve-lopment Officer, Ministry of Labour and the holder of that office was implicated and dismissed. “He has since launched a legal challenge against his dismissal. The matter is currently before the Court of Appeal of Guyana,” the letter said.
Nandlall added that “upon the instruction of His Excellency, I met with Mr Ronald Alli, an executive member of the Lamaha Cooperative Society. At that meeting this matter was thoroughly discussed. Mr Alli requested that the Government cause the transport of the said plot of land, then already vested in the name of the new owner, to be cancelled, rescinded or annulled.”
“I explained to Mr Alli that the issue of a transport is a judicial act….I advised him that a transport can only be annulled, rescinded or cancelled by an order of a Puisne Judge at the instance of the aggrieved party…My advice has since been heeded,” he said.
Alli however told Stabroek News last week that what the Attorney General said at the meeting, “was in fact his opinion that this was the only route, but there are others. We felt there were others,” he asserted.
Alli said that they did not heed Nandlall because he had given the advice but rather because “we had no alternative with the one year period. Because the Government did not do what they humbly committed in returning the land,” he said.
Nandlall’s letter had also addressed points raised in the editorial about the way several agencies handled the sale including the swiftness with which the Deeds Registry concluded the transaction.
The AG said: “An inquiry was launched at the Deeds Registry in respect of the said transaction. No evidences of irregularity or wrongdoing were unearthed.
“However, the comparative alacrity with which the transaction was processed at that department was duly noted.”
The editorial had also referred to Alli’s disclosure that the Ministry of Local Government had granted a waiver of taxes on the land when it had no jurisdiction in the matter.
Nandlall’s letter acknowledged that the collection of rates and taxes falls under the remit of the Georgetown Mayor and City Council and that the Ministry of Local Government has no lawful power to waive rates and taxes. The AG said nothing further about whether the government would investigate the claim that ministry had waived the taxes. Stabroek News yesterday asked Minister in the Ministry of Local Govern-ment, Norman Whittaker for a comment on this matter and he asserted that “The Minister can waive rates and taxes under certain circumstances.”
He added that the Minister may be ordered to waive the taxes on any property as a result of which no rates shall be payable. “I would grant them it (the waiver) if the council cannot give it to them,” he said. He did not cite the law that permitted this.
Nandlall added in his letter: “I hope that this brief intervention will convince you and your readership that the impression conveyed that the Government was complicit in, or acted in concert with, or was part of some design, to deprive the Lamaha Gardens Cooperative Society of their transported property, or did nothing in relation to this matter, is palpably erroneous.”
Roy McArthur, head of the Lamaha Gardens Interim Management Committee argued that the furtive sale of the land was influenced by the Local Government Ministry. “…writing a letter to the Town Clerk authorizing the waiver of interest and rates and taxes. We don’t know about rates and taxes being paid on places like playgrounds.” The services we get from the city is our garbage collection, our drains have not been maintained by them.”
“In the letter, he (the Ministry of Local Government official) quoted a section of law…nothing within the section of law that he quoted gave him the legal authority to suspend rates and taxes which fall under the Mayor and City Council.”
History of the land
Mc Arthur told Stabroek News that in the 1950’s, housing was a major problem for a number of civil servants living in Georgetown and the Civil Service Association decided to examine the problem and after listening to members, they suggested that a cooperative housing society be formed and to try to build homes for members.
“Those who were interested were required to come sign up on a register and pay monthly by deduction from salary to the Civil Service Association (CSA) for the purpose of purchasing the land suitable for development in this housing area. That was in 1958. In 1959, with more than 200 persons on the register, the co-op society had enough money to go and look for land.”
He said that they eventually settled on buying a part of Bel Air estates and after having purchased the land, they had to develop the area. “This plan had to be submitted to Central Housing and Planning Authority and after they examined it, it came back to the co-op society and said that what we are trying to do must also incorporate a recreational ground for the community if the plan is to be accepted by them.”
“We had to decide when to earmark the area for recreational purposes. We were told that this area would not be resurveyed and could not be sold, it had to be for recreational purposes. The name of the area was given as Lamaha Gardens and it was registered with Lands and Surveys since 1959. The people who paid for the area including the playground, are the substantive owners of that playground,” McArthur argued.
McArthur went on to explain that the CSA had a change in name to the Public Service Union (PSU) and the lawyer of the PSU had written a letter to the Government saying that it could not sell the land. “…(Joe) Harmon had written a letter and they paid no attention to what Harmon said and the next thing we are going to hear is that the co-op housing society limited had been dissolved because we had less than seven members. Now we have a lot more than seven members, and nobody from the cooperative department ever tried to make contact with any of the existing members of the society.”
Another resident of the Lamaha Gardens community, Vic Insanally added that a notice was placed in the Official Gazette that there were lands for sale in the CSA scheme. “We paid no attention to that because this is Lamaha Gardens, that is the title of the area since 1959 and we will only address a notice if the name of Lamaha Gardens is stated,” he said.
“The land that was advertised was CSA scheme, nothing to do with Lamaha Gardens. So if you want to say you are selling it then you must go to the CSA scheme wherever it is. But having gone through their process, they have suddenly identified Lamaha Gardens.”
Tender process flawed
At the January 22 meeting, Alli had also said that the tender process was also a “flawed” one, especially with regards to the subsequently discovered relationships of those persons tendering. “There was no tender box. The tenders were submitted at the home of the liquidator in Lusignan,” he said.
Alli added that it was “absolutely amazing” that two days after the valuation certificate for the land was issued, two tenders were received above the valuation price.
Insanally asserted that by placing a liquidator on the East Coast, the process was not meant to attract real bids. “We have 95% proven that the six bidders are probably interconnected. One started at $6M and another was $29M, it was just above the price the evaluator came up with. There was no indication where the area was, no phone number where you can phone anybody and ask where the area was, yet all of them said they went and see the place.”
“Efforts were made to disguise the land and then they moved to sell it at this chicken feed price, to do what?” Insanally questioned.