Land battle

Politicians back squatters in ongoing Westmoreland dispute.

EIGHT councillors from both sides of the political divide, and an Opposition Member of Parliament (MP), yesterday voiced support for the more than 500 people who have

been living on an 867-acre property in Little Bay, Westmoreland, but whose tenure is now in jeopardy after the court ruled against 37 of them who fought an eviction order.

Among the central and local government politicians are Dr Wykeham McNeill, the MP for Westmoreland Western, and Savanna-la-Mar Mayor Councillor Bertel Moore.

“I cannot stand here and see injustice being done. The court may have taken a decision, but personally, I don’t like the decision because when you have people living on a property for 60, 70 years, I think from the outset, when they were selling the land, the citizens should have gotten the first preference to buy that property,” Moore told journalists at a news conference held at Savanna-la-Mar Methodist Church Hall in Westmoreland, which was attended by more than 200 of the residents.

The press conference was aimed at updating residents on the latest developments in the case and for them to share their stories and air their concerns.

Moore argued that the land should not have been sold to any one person, regardless of how much money the person has.

“These people who are living there, they are not rich people, but the land could have been bought by them. And I think the Government should step in and do what is right for the people of Little Bay, Brighton, and Salmon Point,” the mayor said in reference to the three communities affected by the dispute.

“I will fight to the end with them to see justice prevail for those people,” Moore added.

Included in the three communities are two large towns, churches, and a government-owned school — Little Bay Primary.

The residents, who have been referred to as squatters, have been in a more than decade-old battle for the land, which saw them filing a claim for ownership in 2003.

That claim was heard in 2011 and was rejected in a judgement by Justice Ingrid Mangatal.

A stay of execution of the court’s order was filed by attorneys representing the residents in March 2011, but this was rejected by the court.

The residents later returned to court to apply for an interim stay of execution, which resulted in a halt to eviction preparations started by the owners of the property, Kathleen Eugster and family.

A counter motion filed by attorneys representing the owners was heard last week Friday and the court upheld the 2011 ruling to remove the 37 residents who took the matter to court.

Yesterday, McNeill, who described the affair as “messy”, argued that there must be a way for an amicable resolution.

“This issue has descended into a very messy affair. It has become a legal issue, and what we have been trying to advocate is some sort of discussion, agreement to see whether or not we can find an amicable way to try and resolve the problem that we have,” stated McNeill.

He said that people are willing to purchase the land on which they are living, and noted that the Government had also made an offer on the property.

“The latest [was] two months ago when a letter was written from the Ministry of Housing to purchase 30 acres of land and we were told they were not willing to decide, and that they wanted US$60 million for the total land, which was not something that the

Government could have contemplated in the budget,” he said. “So, the real problem is that we are somewhat at an impasse.

Everyone here believes in the rule of law, but what we do also believe is that there must be a mechanism, a way in which we can sit down and have dialogue to try and resolve this matter peacefully and amicably,” Dr McNeill said.

“I met with the prime minister on Tuesday. He was sympathetic to our cause. He has instructed [the housing minister] to have some dialogue and to see if there is some way that we can move forward to resolve this. And, I think that what we are looking now is to see how we are going to move forward to deal with this,” he told the residents.

“As I said to the prime minister, it is one thing to say that we are going to move 15 or 30 people. But I don’t know how you are going to relocate over 500 people or how you are going to say you are going to bulldoze the houses of 500 people, or more, or how you are going to relocate two big towns.

So, there are real issues that have to be dealt with,” argued Dr McNeill.

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