Tue | Dec 7, 2021

US$5b tourism investment at stake in Little Bay

Developers frustrated at prolonged efforts to rid property of squatters, including government school

Published:Saturday | October 9, 2021 | 12:11 AMErica Virtue - Senior Gleaner Writer
The Little Bay cove in Westmoreland is lined by the south coast’s most beautiful remaining white sand beaches.
The Little Bay cove in Westmoreland is lined by the south coast’s most beautiful remaining white sand beaches.
High-altitude satellite view of Little Bay and Brighton, Westmoreland.
High-altitude satellite view of Little Bay and Brighton, Westmoreland.
The Little Bay All-Age and Infant School is said to be on the contentious lands.
The Little Bay All-Age and Infant School is said to be on the contentious lands.

A planned multibillion-dollar tourism investment for the prime oceanfront in Little Bay, Westmoreland, is hanging in the balance as a group of investors are being frustrated with efforts to evict hundreds of squatters from the property.

The development, which investors say will include at least two five-star resorts and two PGA-type golf courses, is being stymied in the community renowned for breathtaking sunsets as owner Kathleen Eugster struggles to take possession of the 867-acre property.

Despite a 2011 court decision granting writs of possession and the eviction of at least 27 settlers, Eugster, a United States citizen, is still unable to get access to the property years after her husband, John, was murdered there during the efforts to reclaim it.

The squatters have occupied the property for years, offering various tourism products, including guest houses, villas, bars and restaurants, plus multimillion-dollar housing solutions.

The police have also fingered the area as providing the perfect cover for players in the bloody drugs and guns trade between Jamaica and Haiti.

The Sunday Gleaner has learnt that hundreds of acres remain in dispute, and the Government’s silence on its interest in purchasing 20 acres is adding to the frustrations of the owner and prospective investors.

Eugster’s representatives – attorney Alimi Banjoko and investment banker Michael Lukas – say that the illegal occupation has prevented both access and development.

“The issue here is not the price of the land. The issue is the removal of the squatters so that the land can be developed. It’s been marketed to be developed, and there is interest in the land [by not just persons wishing to develop it to] Caribbean five-star standard, but by ultra-luxury developers of some of the most luxurious properties in the United States,” Lukas told The Sunday Gleaner.

“The type of project we envision here is no less than US$8 billion, more likely between US$3 billion to $US5 billion, though. The plan is to make this an ultra-luxurious property targeting the rich and famous for the place which has the most beautiful sunsets in the world. Not to mention the contribution to the country’s economy,” he said.

Two properties make up Little Bay, and Banjoko said that the Government has gone silent since April on its efforts to relocate the squatters.

“In 2018, the Ministry of Economic Growth intervened and said they would resettle squatters. We have had several meetings, timetables, and the last meeting we had with Minister Pearnel Charles Jr was in April. They have done site surveys, geological and socio-economic surveys, and [looked at] the issue of price,” said Banjoko. “Most importantly, is the Government prepared to make the acquisition for the number of the acres they are still interested in?”

Fifty acres were initially considered by the Government, he said, but it was reduced to 20 acres towards the east of the contested property.

The discussions have led Banjoko to believe that Crown lands that adjoin the property would be used to settle the squatters.

“He (Charles) has been absent. We have made several attempts to reach him to no success. So our question is, why is he not communicating with us?” Banjoko asked. “... Given the scope of the investment, any reasonable offer put forward by the Government will not be refused to get the relocation process going and to get the squatters off.”

Both Lukas and Banjoko said that they were told that there were no government buildings on the property although it seems that the Government is part of the squatting problem as the Little Bay Infant and Primary School is located on the property.

Banjoko said that based on action – and lack thereof – over the years, it is reasonable to infer that “political football is being played and promises were made”.

He said that information from the community suggested that promises were given to the squatters in the last general election campaign and may have led to Wykeham McNeill being booted from office.

When contacted by The Sunday Gleaner, Charles’ office declined to comment on the matter.

Banjoko said there is a common-law solution to the issue.

He pointed to Justice Ingrid Mangatal’s 2011 ruling suggesting that lawmakers re-examine the law relating to adverse possession, which gives squatters the right to claim ownership of private lands they occupy for 12 years or more and 60 years in the case of government property.

Citing the law of adverse possession, she pointed to the ruling by British jurist Lord Bingham of Cornhill, who noted that “as a result of the registered owner’s inaction, the adverse possessors enjoyed the full use of the land without payment for 12 years”. The occupiers were awarded titles to the land without any obligation to compensate the former owner.

Mangatal ruled that where the land is registered, she could not see how it was possible that the registered owners could not get compensation.

She took note of the problems experienced by the Eugsters to claim the property and the moves to prevent this by persons who have been living there for decades.

“This matter has been plagued by violence and allegations of deaths linked to this land dispute on both sides. That is a grave and unfortunate situation that is far too prevalent in this country. I trust that there shall be no more such occurrences and that this dispute can be concluded in a law-abiding and civilised manner,” said Mangatal.

However, battle lines have long been drawn on Mangatal’s verdict.

Then Member of Parliament McNeill and Councillor Bertel Moore sided with the occupants, many of whom have resided there since the former’s late father, Dr Ken McNeill, was the member of parliament.

Squatter communities have historically largely supported either of the island’s two main political parties, and representatives have been accused of turning a blind eye to the problem.

Nearly one million Jamaicans are said to be illegally occupying lands for which they have no titles.