Land Bank Reform Act may have to wait until 2023 senatorial term

REQUEST: A sign requesting the return of land taken by the military to the original landowners and their families is seen Tuesday, July 12, 2022, along Route 15 in Mangilao. David Castro/The Guam Daily Post

As lawmakers prepare for the final session of the 36th Guam Legislature, one bill that is unlikely to advance is the Land Bank Reform Act, the governor's remedy to compensation concerns involving ancestral land.

Speaker Therese Terlaje, who leads the legislative committee on land, told The Guam Daily Post the bill "proposes no immediate remedy and can be addressed in the next legislative term."

Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero wrote to Terlaje on Tuesday, voicing concern over the measure having "languished" in committee for five weeks.

"I had requested in my transmittal of the bill in on Oct. 18, 2022, and again on Oct. 24, 2022, that you promptly schedule a public hearing. Landowners and the public deserve a response to hold you accountable. Over a year's worth of work and meetings with landowners by my administration culminated in the drafting of this bill. The least you can do is push it over the finish line," the governor wrote.

Responding to the speaker's comments, the governor stated further to the Post that "as a supposed champion" of land rights issues, Terlaje "should’ve been eager to engage the public and also the Legislature to provide an opportunity for discussion and debate."

The speaker criticized the Land Bank Reform Act as doing nothing for ancestral owners concerned about Lå’lo, or the area of Mangilao around Eagles Field, where a new medical campus is proposed to be built. The military also has eyed the properties as a potential site for missile defense facilities.

Terlaje argued that the Land Bank Reform Act would only add Lå'lo landowners "to a long list of Tiyan and other ancestral landowners who still have not yet been compensated for property returned, yet kept, by the government of Guam."

"The bill generally suggests that funding will come from different sources, but an actual appropriation is not included in the bill and will be up to future Legislatures to find. Additionally, the fiscal note for this bill indicates that, absent an estimate of how many claimants of dispossessed ancestral landowners as well as the appraised value of all the properties, (the Bureau of Budget and Management Research) is unable to determine the total amount required to be deposited in the Land Bank," the speaker added.

However, the most concerning issue about the measure, according to the speaker, is that it "seems to set a new policy that lands returned by the federal government will no longer be returned to the ancestral landowners, that these landowners will sign away their rights to their land in exchange for payment of 1944 prices adjusted for inflation," Terlaje stated.

"The bill also proposes that the government of Guam condone paying the federal government for leases of ancestral lands. In March of 2011, there was a 'March on Fena' by senators in protest over a similar proposal that Guam lease parts of Fena back instead of an outright return. The whole framework is a reversal of Guam’s decadeslong pursuit of getting lands returned and the military’s promise in the (fiscal year) 2019 (National Defense Authorization Act) for net negative land use. We must, as a people, continue to push for justice and return of these lands," Terlaje added.

The desire for land return has been evident in public policy, such as in the creation of the Guam Ancestral Lands Commission, which is charged with facilitating the return of ancestral land or granting just compensation to original owners. When ancestral land cannot be returned due to public use, claimants can be compensated through land bank funds. 

But as far as returning land to ancestral owners, federal law poses a challenge.

While U.S. Law 106-504 is intended to place GovGuam ahead of all federal agencies in the return of federal excess lands, it essentially bars the return of that land to original owners on Guam.   

With that roadblock in place for land return, the governor had proposed the Land Bank Reform Act to facilitate monetary compensation.

However, some owners and heirs at Eagles Field continue to desire land return and have asked public officials to work on amending the federal law. 

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