US Navy letter hints at legal tussle for Tinian port rights

US Navy letter hints at legal tussle for Tinian port rights

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A Department of Defense lawyer has signaled the military’s position on planned commercial development at the Tinian port, hinting in a letter to the Commonwealth Ports Authority of a potential clash in military use rights with developments like a multimillion dollar casino resort currently beginning construction on the Tinian wharf.

In a letter this month to Commonwealth Ports Authority counsel Robert Torres, Department of the Navy lawyer John V.R. Aguon said DoD has “become aware” of CPA’s leasing of real property on the island of Tinian to various entities. He reminds CPA that the United States has certain rights contained in longstanding agreements between the CNMI and Defense—such as a 1983 lease and its amendments—that “authorize and guarantee DoD various military uses at the Tinian port and airport.”

“We desire to ensure these DoD rights are protected,” Aguon said.

Saipan Tribune emailed top Navy officials yesterday to clarify the “specific extent” of the rights that DoD is claiming to the port, and why they have chosen to raise the issue now, but a Navy spokesperson said a response would be given today.

Aguon’s letter—copies of which were obtained by Saipan Tribune yesterday—notes that certain portions of the port are currently leased to Bridge Investment Group—an investor building a reported $120-million casino resort on the port. And that in the future,” other portions of the Tinian port may be physically or legally encumbered by either Bridge or other private entities.”

“We are concerned that these developments may compromise DoD’s various rights,” Aguon said. “We would like to work with CPA to identify existing conflicts, if any, between the lease to Bridge or other entities and the agreements with United States and how to resolve them.

“We would like to work together to ensure DoD’s rights are protected moving forward,” he added.

“In the case of development of Tinian,” said Sen. Jude Hofsneider (R-Tinian) yesterday, “it’s unfortunate that this issue had to come to form at this juncture, knowing that the existing developer is committed and we hope that no further problems will arise as a result of this particularly issue.

“BIG has been around for the longest time. And they are very persistent with their committeeman to develop Tinian as a destination site for tourism,” he said.

CPA executive director Maryann Lizama declined to comment yesterday, saying the Navy letter was under legal review.

For their part, Bridge Investment Group executive director Phillip Mendiola-Long said they stand by their lease agreement with CPA. “…There are absolutely no conflicts with the U.S. military’s potential use of Tinian’s port,” he told Saipan Tribune.

Mendiola-Long said their project is a U.S. “EB-5” investor-funded project, which means that “our U.S. company is receiving a low interest loan from foreign investors who are vetted by” the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Services and the U.S. State Department.

The EB-5 program requires hiring U.S. workers and that their project—which is currently under construction—has an over 90 percent U.S. citizen employment rate.”

“I am not aware of any other major projects in the CNMI that are anywhere near us with regard to commitment to hiring local or U.S. citizens,” he added.

The Department of Defense’s notice of concern—amidst the ongoing commercial development and the larger backdrop of Defense’s plans to conduct large-scale live-fire training on the island—has raised some questions.

“You have Phillip [Mendiola-] Long who came out vocally against the military buildup and now all of a sudden the military’s coming in and asking for the lease rights?” said Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Alex Sablan.

The military is “in that prerogative, that is a given,” he added. “Anytime that the DoD wants to commandeer the ports they can during wartime” but civil time “they are really going to call this out? I do think it’s poor timing for the military to come out in this timeline and we’ve been talking about this for years. It’s no secret that we’ve been trying to get a project on the wharf there.”

Sablan believes the military uses should not compromise the investment. “I don’t think the investment impacts the military whatsoever. The main port facility is not impacted by this development. They will have complete access to the entry and exit of the port. What the military needs to do is come in and fix the port. Because the port is falling a part.”

Sablan said the idea that the military will use the port down the line is “farfetched if we don’t fix the breakwater and don’t have safe navigation for the military vessels that do come into the wharf.”

“There are looking at the wrong issue. Bridge [Investment Group] has nothing to do with the ability of the military to utilize the port. The military has everything to with us trying to fix the port because it was left in tatters, and because Tinian is a military ground—And with three fourths of the island [leased to them], I would think that the military should spend its time fixing the assets so that they will have access to wharfs, the airports anytime they need to.”


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