St. Maarten Parliament reconvenes on Vorst land purchase deal: More sabre rattling as election looms

POSTED: 07/4/14 12:52 AM

St. Maarten – The plenary session of Parliament on the Vorst family land deal was reconvened yesterday. And once again the argument became sharply divided along party lines as coalition partner the Democratic Party (DP) sided with the National Alliance (NA) and independent Member of Parliament (MP) Frans Richardson in criticizing the decision of Vromi Minister Maurice Lake. DP MP and faction leader Roy Marlin presented 2 motions in Parliament, with the second condemning the Minister’s decision.

Both motions were voted down by the United People’s Party (UP), independent MP Lloyd Richardson, and independent MP Patrick Illidge. MP Romain Laville voted against the second motion; he was absent for the first. The first motion was defeated by a vote of 7 to 4. And the second was defeated by 8 to 4.

As this newspaper’s reconstruction showed on Monday, the Vorst-property came first into the picture when former Justice Minister Roland Duncan wanted to build his megalomaniacal $100 million Justice Park there. On April 17, 2013, all members of the National Alliance faction and independents Frans Richardson, Patrick Illidge and Romain Laville voted in favor if this project. Only DP faction leader Roy Marlin voted against.

“The lease deal was made by the former Minister of Justice (Roland Duncan – ed.),” Minister Lake said in his defense. “It’s clear that we are playing politics.” He said that at no time were there objections to the Justice Park from the NA when they were in government. He explained that there was a Letter of Intent (LOI) from the previous government, which was binding and the Vorst family threatened legal action against the state if it was not honored.

Minister Lake pointed out in Monday’s meeting that the Democratic Party approved the 2014 budget and that the Vorst-property purchase is a part of this budget. The minister said that the lease price would have been $795 per square meter. The total  lease price of $8.8 million is $3.3 million higher than the purchase price, the minister said, adding that $3 million is reserved in the 2014 budget and that the remaining $2.5 million will come from the 2015 budget.

Lake criticized DP faction leader Roy Marlin in his address. “It is election time, and the Democratic Party faction Member of Parliament has made it very clear that it is payback time. He wants to destroy a young and upcoming representative of the people.

“The same Member of Parliament tried to concoct a vote of no confidence against your humble servant of the people a few months ago but it backfired. He seemingly is now at it again,’ the minister said. “I have also learned the art of politics whereby you have colleagues encouraging you and stressing the importance of doing my homework while at the same time they are plotting behind your back and feeding the social media in an attempt to destroy your character.”

Lake said he renegotiated and got the price down to $494 per square meter, down from a much higher figure. “It is not easy to overturn a binding agreement,” Lake said of his predecessor’s actions. Wanting to avoid a lengthy and costly court case, he added, he decided to renegotiate the purchasing price, and to buy the land outright instead of leasing it. Lake said his actions were based on the principle of saving money for the tax payers. “Saving the taxpayer $3 million.”

“The court case is not cancelled, it was postponed and still pending,” the Minister explained.  “There was a binding Letter of Intent about the property, and I renegotiated to save the tax payers money,” he reiterated.  The family currently has two people with authorized powers of attorney that allow them to legally represent the family in all transactions.

“This is not a regular purchase but a renegotiation to come up with a better price for government,” Lake said, when asked why there was not a new appraisal on the land. “The signed Letter of Intent with the Vorst family was a binding agreement.”

Because the land price is considered high, Minister Lake said he would like to maximize its use by including it for social homes and other community oriented buildings. “I envision the land can be used for housing, and the remainder for a commercial park,” Minister Lake said. “The property will be used for mixed purposes.” Parliament, he went on, can refuse to honor the remainder of the purchase price in the 2015 budget, though there will be legal consequences if they do.

The LOI did go to the Council of Ministers, he explained. “I have not seen any objections to the Letter of Intent,” Lake said.

“The Vorst property was part of the Justice Park project,” Lake pointed out again. Lake warned that the danger with leased properties is that the owner can take them back once the lease is finished.

“There are no advantages of leasing over purchasing,” Lake said, adding that throughout this the Vorst family has been cooperative. Minister Lake said that there were no appraisals done in the previous government, and that leasing was going to be more costly to government than outright purchase.

DP MP Roy Marlin argued that the legal advice on the Letter of Intent does not conclude that it is legally binding. And he took issue with the fact Minister Lake exceeded his executive prerogatives by allocating part of the funds for the land purchase in the 2015 budget, when he may or may not be sitting in office as Vromi Minister; that he felt was the prerogative of Parliament. He also feared that this high asking price would set a bad precedent in the future for government when it needs to purchase land.

But MP Heyliger countered, pointing out that leasing it for 37 years for the so-called Justice Park was committing government much further ahead than to 2015. “But of course it’s politics,” he said. “I’d rather deal with it here and now, while I can be responsible for it.” He chided members of the opposition for flip flopping on the issue. They were for it when they were in government, but are now against it, within the span of a year, he said.

MP Frans Richardson said there is no justification for the price, since the average for the area is $45. “If these are the type of people we have negotiating for we, people be careful.”

But according to Lake, the appraisal reports he read indicated values of up to $550 per square meter when the area was being considered for Minister Duncan’s Justice Park. He also insisted that the LOI was binding, according to Legal Affairs. “A letter of Intent can be binding, as is the case here.

“Why would Parliament refuse to approve the second payment in 2015, if it approved the first payment,” Lake said in response to MP Marlin.

MP Leonard wondered why the DP would attack its coalition partner in Parliament and not discuss their concerns in a coalition meeting. “Why do you want to come here and attack the Minister?”


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St. Maarten Parliament reconvenes on Vorst land purchase deal: More sabre rattling as election looms by

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