The other shoe has just dropped! A local landowner who was forced to pay for a costly archeological survey against his better judgment is now rightly demanding reimbursement to the tune of nearly $16,000.

If this payment is not received forthwith from the Guam State Historic Preservation Office, the SHPO can expect a lawsuit from the private property holder. Not only because the whole time-wasting procedure has been exasperating and expensive, but because the law backs him up!

This is exactly the kind of mess I’ve been fighting to clean up since March when Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero appointed me permit czar. The people of Guam have suffered long enough under the weight of narrow opinion about what constitutes a “permissible” development. And I’m saying, “NO MORE!”

Case in point. For the past two years, local investor Chris Torres has simply wanted to clear his land in Talo'fo'fo' to give it more value and has been attempting to turn earth on this worthwhile project that whole time. But the Department of Parks and Recreation’s SHPO division has dragged its feet and refused to sign off on his permit application, even though every other permitting agency with jurisdiction over this preplanned clearing has already done so.

Sounding the sonic boom!

Last July I told Post readers, “If the (SHPO) wants to know whatever ancient artifacts could be buried under residents’ private property, then the SHPO should shoulder the high cost of archeological digs – not homebuilders!” This is where the first shoe hit the ground thudding.

In the same edition of my Guam Strategy column (“Dear SHPO: You ordered it, you pay for it!” July 1), I went on to list the litany of high costs that are already making home construction and small business development unaffordable at a time when our island is in desperate need of economic recovery from a pandemic that has now spent the better part of two years decimating livelihoods in every village.

And I suggested that forcing pricey busywork and exorbitant surveys down the throats of homebuilders and mom and pop shops was adding insult to injury and throwing a wet blanket on economic development. The mounting frustration has since crescendoed and is now coming home to roost.

The recent incident involving the reimbursement demand letter from Mr. Torres’ lawyer Joseph Razzano lends credence to waves of complaints over interagency permit delays in Guam’s construction industry. This situation in the jungles of Talo'fo'fo' reached the boiling point last summer, and thus my current public vetting of the facts at hand.

Citing the law

On behalf of Mr. Torres and his company, WSTCO, Attorney Razzano sent a standing letter to DPR spelling out the legal reasons why the SHPO’s archeologists have been in violation of the law whenever they’ve made private land developers pay for surveys. In short: “DPR’s enabling statute as it relates to historical preservation and approval of permits is 21 G.C.A. Chapter 76. [Article] 21 G.C.A. Section 76511 grants DPR oversight over clearing and grading permits, but this statute applies to developments by the government and not private parties … The Lots are not government land, and therefore, this section does not apply.”

Razzano had also asked the Department of Public Works, in writing, to amend WSTCO’s application by removing the extralegal requirement for DPR’s approval: “There is simply no statutory authority granted by the legislature of Guam for DPR’s approval for the Application. Consequently, it was in error for DPW to require DPR’s approval.”

Assuming a deference to the enforcing authority, I am informed that it was only after the Attorney General’s Office had reviewed Razzano’s pleadings on behalf of Torres that DPR signed off on Mr. Torres’ clearing and grading permit.

Be that as it may, although DPR Director Roke Alcantara and DPW Director Vince Arriola had both been amenable to signing the permit approval, DPR’s SHPO division had not.

Bear in mind that I describe only one offending situation among many suffered at the hands of the SHPO. Such intransigence has infuriated private developers in every municipality of Guam and must now come to an expedient and irreversible end!

What’s at stake

Our governor gave me a job to do, and I intend to do it: making the permitting process fairer and more efficient for all. First and foremost, to protect the constitutional property rights of homebuilders and small businesses everywhere, then to warmly welcome direct investment and advance the development of major projects that benefit all who call Guam home and those who love to visit our beautiful tropical island paradise.

We’ve made meaningful progress in terms of securing several permitting agencies’ commitment to following the spirit and letter of the law. But until a state-of-the-art digital tracking system with a common interface shared by all agencies replaces paper application forms and rubber stamps, the process will remain too antiquated to keep Guam competitive among the top tier of sponsors and lenders seeking investment-friendly destinations in which to grow their capital. Thankfully, the word from Director Arriola is that DPW is very close to implementing a workable online permit-processing platform.

My sanguine hope is that with the increasingly efficient issuance of licenses and permits in Guam, the dozen-plus departments and agencies now directly involved in this process will soon be able to staff up with all the qualified personnel they need to keep licensing and permitting apace with the flow of construction demand.

In turn, I anticipate the gradual reduction of associated development costs as materials and services pour into our market, and as supply vendors make up in sales volume what they might otherwise lose if their unit pricing was any lower while goods are still scarce.

Until these changes take effective hold across the board, Destination Guam can offer the construction industry little more than a lick and a promise in the local licensing and permitting process and will keep kissing too many investors, developers, and builders goodbye!

A fair warning to those not following the law: Chris Torres is just one person – whom you don’t want to mess with when the law is on his side. Expect a class-action lawsuit from all those people the SHPO has forced to spend time and money jumping through one insatiable hoop after another. My understanding is that this suit may stretch back over ten years of alleged SHPO overreach and may go after officials personally.

Carl T.C. Gutierrez is a former two-term governor of Guam who now serves as chairman of the Governor’s Economic Strategy Council, permit czar, and president and CEO of the Guam Visitors Bureau. Your comments and questions are welcome at communityrelations@visitguam.org.

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