AG questioned over continuing defence in challenge to ‘sale’ of Lamaha Gardens playground

The state of the playground recently

Residents of Lamaha Gardens remain hopeful that a plot of land earmarked as a community playground for the past 50 years, and which they say has been sold under questionable circumstances for commercial purposes, can be returned to them for the intended purpose.

The matter, which is currently engaging the attention of the courts, is due to continue on March 6th before High Court Judge Brassington Reynolds.

Executive member of the committee of residents Ronald Alli had previously raised concerns over the sale of the land. More recently, however, Minister of Infrastructure David Patterson, who is also a resident of Lamaha Gardens, has also voiced concern.

In January, Patterson wrote Attorney General Basil Williams SC and reiterated the concerns over the sale, while charging that Williams’ predecessor under the former PPP/C administration, Anil Nandlall, supported the illegality when he served.

In the letter, which was seen by this newspaper, the minister said that while in opposition, both the APNU and AFC parties, which together now form the governing collation, condemned the sale, offering support in the community’s quest for justice.

As a result, Patterson said he now finds it “quite strange that your good offices continue to offer a defence on this matter.”

He added that it was also noteworthy that the beneficiary of the land deal was the same person who was recently blocked by the courts for a similar action, regarding attempts to acquire the playground in the Bel Air Park for housing purposes.

In that case, local developer Terrence Taljit applied for permission to develop a portion of the Community Reserve Property for the purpose of constructing modern homes.

Patterson’s correspondence, dated January 22nd, 2018, was copied to Minister of State Joe Harmon, Minister of Communities Ronald Bulkan, Minister of Foreign Affairs Carl Greenidge, Minister of Security Khemraj Ramjattan and Minister of Natural Resources Raphael Trotman.

He opined that with local government elections to be held this year, “I am sure that this long outstanding matter will be an issue of interest for the residents in the community.”

Apart from Taljit, the other defendants listed in the Lamaha Gardens action are Cecil Ramnarine, individually and in his capacity as liquidator of the Housing Co-operative, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Compton Outar (Chief Valuation Officer), Registrar of Deeds and the Attorney General.

The action filed by the Civil Service Association Housing Co-operative Society Limited (Plaintiff), on behalf of the residents, seeks, among other things, a declaration that Taljit and Ramnarine, at all material times, only held the Lot 142 Durbana Square and Marudi Street, Lamaha Gardens, Georgetown land on trust for them.

The plaintiffs are arguing that transport No. 19/2013 of 7th January, 2013, under which Taljit has been made registered owner of the land in dispute is null and void, and as such want it set aside.

Alternatively, they are seeking damages against Taljit, Ramnarine, Jabbar and Outar in excess of $100,000,000 for alleged fraud. They have also asked the court for Taljit to be restrained from “selling, disposing, mortgaging, encumbering or in any other manner dealing with the property.”

Additionally, the residents want an order directing the Registrar of Deeds and/or the Attorney General to cancel the said transport and restore registration of the property to them.

According to Winston McArthur, who is listed in the court document as the interim Chairman of the Housing Co-operative, the entity was formed in 1958 for the purpose of providing housing for its members, and was registered owner of the land by virtue of transport No. 410 of March 11th, 1959.

In its application, the plaintiffs said that the designated plot was retained for community recreational purposes as required by the Central Housing and Planning Authority.

They have said that Taljit is the owner of several properties in Lamaha Gardens and at all material times was fully aware of the value of property in the area, and the fact that the land belonged to them and was reserved for community purposes.

Influenced

McArthur had argued that the furtive sale of the land was influenced by the Local Government Ministry at the time. He had said that in the 1950s, 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.

According to him, 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 after identifying and settling on purchasing the land, they had to then focus on developing the area.

McArthur said that thereafter, “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.”

He previously noted that they were told that this area would not be resurveyed and could not be sold, and 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.

At a January 22nd, 2014 meeting, Alli had said that the tender process for the property was “flawed,” 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.

After almost two years, Bel Air Park residents on January 15th won a challenge they had mounted to reclaim their community playground when the High Court ruled that the land is to be used specifically for that purpose and no other—though it now seems that their battle is far from over, as the Georgetown Mayor and City Councillors (M&CC), against whom the ruling was made, is now seeking to have that decision set aside.

The ruling was made against the M&CC, its Town Clerk and the Central Housing and Planning Authority, who in 2016 were attempting to convert the recreational space into residential house lots for the Mayor, Town Clerk, City Engineer and Medical Officer of Health.

The Council has since filed an application to set aside Justice Gino Persaud’s ruling, advancing among other things, that its lawyer was unaware of the hearing of the action brought against it, and so was the Town Clerk.

In 2013, Jabbar, former Chief Co-operatives Development Officer was sent on administrative leave to facilitate a probe into alleged breaches resulting from his actions in the sale of the Lamaha Gardens land.

He was subsequently served with a letter from the Public Service Commission, informing him of his dismissal, the legality of which he challenged.

However, the Court of Appeal last December affirmed the decision of former acting Chief Justice Ian Chang that Jabbar had been wrongfully dismissed and ordered the state to pay him costs in the sum of $100,000.

The community has argued that their land was undervalued by around $175 million, noting that before it was sold off for $29 million, its size was also understated by 22,000 square feet.

The quiet sale of the land beginning during the Christmas season of 2012 had evoked the outrage of residents and led to public concerns that employees of several state bodies colluded in the disposal of the property.

They had complained of the then PPP/C government reneged on its promise to have the land returned to them. Attorney General, Nandlall at the time, had said that only a judicial process could reverse the sale of the land.

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