Tobago landowner goes to court over airport expansion project
A CROWN Point, Tobago homeowner has filed a constitutional motion in the High Court to stop the Arthur NR Robinson airport expansion project from acquiring his property without fair compensation.
Attorneys for Woolwin Lovell, of Crompstain Trace, filed the motion in the High Court registry in Tobago on Tuesday.
As an immediate measure, Lovell is seeking an order to stop or suspend any notice served on him and to restrain the State from taking any steps to take his property until his claim is heard and determined.
He is also seeking a declaration that the decision of the State, through the National Infrastructural Development Co (NIDCO) and the Commissioner of State Lands, to seek to acquire his property without paying him is in contravention of his rights.
He also wants damages for the breaches.
The claim alleges abuse of power against the State through the decisions and intention of the two agencies to begin the process of seizing and acquiring Lovell’s land without compensating him.
It also says he had a legitimate expectation by the various representations and assurances in negotiations with the state agencies that he would be paid for his land, and also expected to be treated equally to those who were already paid for their properties and received prime plots as part of a relocation process.
However, the claim said negotiations from 2019-2020 were “ultimately abandoned,” with the State’s final position being it intended to compulsorily acquire his property without paying.
Lovell is represented by a team of attorneys from the firm Martin George and Company.
In his affidavit in support, Lovell said he lived at Lot 1, Crompstain Trace, for over 30 years. He said the land belonged to his father, who acquired it sometime around 1969.
In 1987, while he was a carpenter with the Tobago House of Assembly, he said with his father’s permission he began building his home on the land. His three adult children and their families also live on the property.
He said in 1995, he bought the land from his father and the registered deed is in his name. His legal ownership has also been recognised by the THA and other agencies, including the Town and Country Planning Division, since he began constructing a new building in 2015.
Lovell said since 1995 his father has not physically occupied the land and it remains in his possession.
He also said when he applied for a mortgage loan to build the new building, title searches were done for the property which showed it was legally vested in his name.
Lovell said in 2018, he saw advertisements relating to the airport expansion project and attended an open forum where landowners were told all work on any property in specified areas, must stop, as the State would be moving to acquire those lands. This included Crompstain Trace.
He said this was “quite shocking to him” and he raised his concern, since he was finishing the new structure, which he intended to use as rental apartments to supplement his family’s income.
Lovell also said because of the directive to stop all work, he couldn’t complete the downstairs portion of the new building.
He said a month after the open forum, around May 2018, he was told to collect a cheque as compensation for his land. He had to meet the person at a supermarket in Carnbee and when he got there he said he was told to sign for a cheque made out to his father for $20,000.
Lovell said he refused to accept any cheque made out to his father, as he knew nothing of any transaction or deal made with his father.
He said he had suspicions and hired an attorney on behalf of himself and his sister, who occupies Lot 2, demanding that they be paid for the acquisition of any land, since they were the legal titleholders. He said he received no response or invitation to negotiate for the land.
Unable to develop his property, Lovell said he is financially constrained and this has worsened his fear of any action to remove him and his family.
In March 2019 he received a letter from the Commissioner of State Lands telling him its agents had the power to enter his property to do investigations. He said this gave him the legitimate expectation that he would be properly approached for compensation. He also hired a valuator, who valued his property at $3 million for the land and buildings on it.
In December, he said his son, in a panic, gave him a document stuck to the side of one of the buildings saying the land, which was owned by his father, had been acquired by the State on March 7, 1996. He said this was confusing since he had bought his land, which was part of a larger parcel, the year before and it was registered in his name.
“I have never, since the purchase of my land in 1995, been approached by any agent of the State in respect of acquiring or being compensated for my lands, yet this notice sought to say I had been ‘duly compensated’ when, in fact, I have never been compensated.”
Lovell said he, his sister, and brother tried to address the situation and, in January, he submitted his documentation to the State’s attorneys and again in March after receiving no response. He said he was eventually told not to worry, as his property was one of those listed to be paid for and acquired first.
In August, he said, he heard statements by public officials about people who were “double-dipping” by seeking compensation although they had already been paid.
Lovell said while he was not mentioned by name, the official referred to a “Mr L,” and being a well-known person in the community, these statements cast negative aspersions on himself and his family, causing them public ridicule, shame and scandal. He said since then, his family has been called “greedy, shameless, crooks, land-grabbers and thieves,” and he has been accused of trying to make fraudulent claims against the State.
He also said these statements were repeated by other public officials and this prompted him to send a pre-action protocol letter to NIDCO. He received a reply that the agency was looking into it and an extension was sought.
He said this exacerbated his fear and anxiety, and in November he received a “distressing, confusing and worrisome” response that the notice he received, which gave him the impression there would be negotiations for his land, was an error, as it had been acquired since 1996.
He insists neither his father nor his father’s real estate agent acted on his behalf during negotiations for compensation for his land.
BY: JADA LOUTOO