Monday, March 7, 2016

Supreme Court exempts Ayala's 221-ha Westgrove expansion from land reform

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The online news portal of TV5

Ayala Land has obtained approval from a divided Supreme Court to exempt 221 hectares of forested hilly lands adjoining its high-end Westgrove Heights subdivision from the comprehensive agrarian reform program.

With no less than Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno herself writing the unpublicized decision, the high tribunal last month voted 9-5, with one abstention, and reversed the Court of Appeals decision that would have barred the conversion of the disputed property into another exclusive, gated subdivision.

Sereno was joined by Antonio Carpio, Presbitero Velasco Jr., Arturo Brion, Mariano del Castillo, Jose Perez, Jose Mendoza, Bienvenido Reyes, and Estella Perlas-Bernabe.

Those who voted to keep the disputed property within the agrarian reform program were recently retired Martin Villarama Jr., who wrote the dissenting opinion, Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin and Marvic Leonen.

Francis H. Jardeleza, a former solicitor-general and San Miguel general counsel, declined to vote.

"This is not a case of a feudal landowner unjustly enriched by the hard work of a long-suffering tenant," Sereno said. "Respondents are residents who have not yet established any claim – let alone substantial rights – over the land. On the contrary, what has been duly established is that they have received disturbance compensation."

About half the size of Westgrove Heights, the disputed property was acquired by Ayala Land in 1995 from an auction conducted by the Bangko Sentral as receiver for the shuttered Manila Bank, which in turn had foreclosed on the real estate mortgage of Capitol Citifarms Inc., an agribusiness venture.

Then agrarian reform secretary Ernesto Garilao had initially rejected the application for exemption, but later turned around, after the Office of the President granted the appeal of the Bangko Sentral and Capitol Citifarms to be given a five-year window to seek conversion of the Manila Bank landholdings for non-agricultural use.

Two years later, Garilao issued the conversion order, saying the disputed property, on barangay Munting-Ilog in Silang, Cavite, was beyond the 18 degree slope and therefore outside the CARP coverage.

Garilao's conversion order was subsequently upheld by his two successors, despite the disputed property having already been covered by a DAR notice of acquisition, but whose documentation had inexplicably disappeared.

"Here, however, CARP was never given the chance to be implemented as a result of the landowner's legal maneuvers until conditions of the land had so changed with the lapse of time," Villarama said.

"The unabated land-use conversion from agricultural to industrial, commercial, residential or tourist purposes has been aptly described as 'systematically reversing land reform in a way that was never foreseen by the framers of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law," he added.

But Sereno took pains to shield Ayala Land from whatever machinations implied by Villarama and the land claimants.

"Ayala Land Inc. is in the precarious position of having been that third-party buyer that offered the terms and conditions most helpful to, ultimately, the Bangko Sentral," Sereno said. "Prior to that acquisition, there was absolutely no relationship between ALI and the farmers."

It was not immediately clear if the Silang property, which also overlooks the Laguna TechnoPark and is just 10 kilometers away from the provincial road, will be annexed to the highly successful Westgrove Heights project.

Highlighted by a 28-hectare park, the 400-hectare Westgrove Heights is now on its phases 14 and 15 of development, with Ayala Land offering 430 to 720-square-meter lots costing anywhere from P5.7 million to P8.5 million cash.

Resellers and lot flippers, on the other hand, especially those with properties closer to the main gate and the schools, have been asking for P20,000/sqm or P14.4 million for a similar 720-sqm plot.

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