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NHT rejected $35M offer for idle land Simpson Miller appointed board reportedly held on to Unity Farm despite cash bid

Published:Sunday | April 17, 2016 | 12:00 AMErica Virtue
A sign at the boundary of the idle NHT owned Unity Farm property in St Mary.

A bid by the cash-rich Coconut Industry Board (CIB) to buy the troubled Unity Farm in St Mary for coconut production was rejected by the National Housing Trust (NHT) under the last Government headed by Portia Simpson Miller.

Unity Farm, which is owned by the NHT, was purchased from a company in which former government minister Dr Paul Robertson and his then wife Karlene were the only shareholders.

However, the NHT ignored warnings from its in-house technical team, which warned against the purchase.

Since purchasing the 733-acre property for $62.5 million, the NHT has repeatedly failed in its effort to offload it, which it decided to do after the then NHT board was told it was unsuitable for housing development.

"The Government wanted CIB to develop Unity Farm as the ninth agro park, putting it under coconut production. We told them that we would need a long-term lease on the property for about 50 years, as it takes about six years after planting coconut before you can start reaping," a CIB board member told The Sunday Gleaner.

The board member said once the production of coconuts started, the land could continue producing for another 40 years.

"The minister of agriculture refused to provide a longer lease. We then opted to buy the property with an offer of $35 million, given that it had absolutely no infrastructure. We made that offer even without the property being advertised. The offer was rejected," added the board member.

"We upped the offer when they first resisted. That was last year. But we have yet to receive a response to the second offer which was made in 2015."

WORTH $35 MILLION

Another CIB board member told our news team that the property was worth no more than the $35 million offered by CIB and, "any offer upward was a bonus for NHT. They will never get a higher offer."

But a former member of the NHT's board, current government senator Lambert Brown, told The Sunday Gleaner that to the best of his recollection the offer made by the CIB was unacceptable.

"The board at the time felt that the offer was too low. There was some discussion about whether it could be leased so that we could still have ownership. We didn't want it to be there not being used," said Brown.

He said the general direction from the board was that the offer price from the CIB could not be accepted and the details of a lease arrangement would be worked out for a decision to be made one way or the other.

The Andrew Holness administration is yet to name a new board for the NHT.

Unity Farm was purchased in 2003 from PDK Limited, a company in which then government minister Robertson was listed as the major shareholder.

The controversial purchase of the property attracted the attention of Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis who conducted an audit of the purchase.

In her report, Monroe Ellis noted that, "A technical team at the NHT on November 23, 2002 advised members of the then board that a site visit to the property showed that some areas of the land were very steep and development of a residential scheme would be challenging. The technical staff concluded that it would not recommend the acquisition of the land."

An environmental impact assessment commissioned by the NHT after it had completed the sale confirmed the technical advice that the property was not suitable for housing.

erica.virtue@gleanerjm.com