Headline — 24 June 2014 — by Kareem Clarke
Lands million-dollar screw-up

Local airline’s $6M project in San Pedro may be halted; $1M already spent

Case will be heard this Wednesday; Lands Dept. says “human error” responsible

A multi-million dollar airline maintenance facility that is presently under construction by Tropic Air in San Pedro Town has been brought to a standstill following the recent issuance of an injunction order which came about after it came to light that two other private landowners both possess separate land titles within the same area due to an apparent mix-up by the Lands Department concerning the layout of the property and the scope of the titles.

The two landowners are Brett Feinstein – who got a title in April 2014 – and Marilee Pou. Tropic Air’s problems are with Feinstein.

In December 2013, Tropic Air Limited, a local airline company, started construction on a high-tech maintenance facility to substantially expand their operations on the island; however, the Central Building Authority has placed works on hold via a cease-and-desist order sought by Construction Depot Limited – which is a member of the Benny’s Group of Companies – whose proprietor, Brett Feinstein, also has a claim on a significant portion of that same property.

Tropic Air has had a valid lease for the entire property in question – which is located just off the San Pedro Municipal Airstrip – since May of 2008, and has reportedly invested over a million dollars into the project, but in April of 2014, Construction Depot Limited, which is owned by the Feinstein family from Belize City, was somehow granted a land title to approximately one-quarter of the same property by the Government of Belize, four months after construction on the property by Tropic Air had already gotten underway.

Last Thursday, June 12, attorney Eamon Courtenay filed a lawsuit against Tropic Air on behalf of Brett Feinstein of Construction Depot Limited in regards to the 100 by 100-foot portion of the property being claimed by Feinstein, which has since been cordoned off with yellow tape by order of the court.

On Friday, June 13, however, Agnes Segura, attorney for Tropic Air Limited, filed a countersuit seeking judicial review against the Ministry of Natural Resources because the company – which has documents showing ownership since 2008 – has claimed that it hasn’t gotten any notice of a cancellation of their lease, which, they said, should have not been cancelled anyway because they have made all requisite payments and improvements on the property since its acquisition.

The land under dispute – Parcel 5621 – measuring approximately 300 feet by 77 feet, is reportedly under lease to Tropic Air Limited at both the Lands Department and the San Pedro Town Council, but Construction Depot Limited alleges that their title guarantees them ownership of a 100 by 100-feet portion of the property.

Steve Schulte, Chief Executive Officer of Tropic Air Limited, told the media last Thursday that the company has been occupying that property since 2008 with a cargo facility and a part-storage warehouse, and has already poured a parking slab measuring 150 feet by 40 feet on a portion of it, since they believed that they had a “clear and fulfilled lease” on the property from the Government of Belize.

He said that in April of this year, the Feinstein’s gained permission to survey a portion of the property which, at the time, was leased to Tropic Air, and by mid-April, their (the Feinstein’s) title was issued, after which Tropic Air was told – verbally at the time – that they needed to stop construction on that part of the property even though Schulte stated that records at the Lands Department showed Tropic Air Limited as sole leaseholder to lot #5621 for 7 years, with an extension granted for up to 30 years.

Tropic Air’s CEO then said that in March of 2014, he attended a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega after claims of trespass were being made by Construction Depot Limited, and it was agreed that the boundary between the land being claimed by Construction Depot Limited and the portion leased by Tropic Air would be adjusted, especially since the government agreed that a mistake had been made and they (GOB) were willing to work out a rectification.

Last Thursday, Minister of Natural Resources, Gaspar Vega, explained to the media that the complication arose when an initial lease was issued to Tropic Air, but then another was issued for the same piece of land as a result of human error – an error which he claimed happened long before he became Minister of Lands in 2008, and one which the Lands Department had to correct by cancellation of Tropic Air’s lease by virtue of the fact that Feinstein has title to the property (a title which was reportedly issued on April 15, 2014), which outweighs the lease.

He said, “The lease has been cancelled. It’s an error that the Ministry [of Natural Resources] made. It’s an error coming long before 2008 and we tried to rectify the problem and instead of rectifying it, another problem [is caused]. I am going to be honest and say it’s a problem created by the Ministry. The errors were not calculated; it was just a human error and it has compounded problems.”

The situation has been described as a major blunder by the Lands Department, and Schulte told the media that Tropic Air is prepared to go to court to defend its claim on the property, which was slated to be the grounds for a $6 million expansion project which has been in the pipeline since 2006, but now hangs in the air.

The maintenance facility is designed to service five planes at a time, with space for a parts depot, training rooms, and office space, and will reportedly create between 50 to 100 new highly skilled jobs for Belizeans.

While the materialization of the project is now pending litigation, Steven Schulte said that he is hopeful that a settlement can be negotiated between both parties in light of the fact that a great deal of money, time and labor has already been invested in the project, and furthermore because of its implications for tourism and the company’s ability to meet the demands of the tourism industry.

The case is scheduled to be heard in the Supreme Court this Wednesday, June 25, but even though all sides are getting ready to go to court, the Ministry of Natural Resources has urged all parties to come together and negotiate. However, no agreement has been reached yet.

Today, Amandala reached Schulte by phone, but he told us that he was meeting with government officials at the time.

Late this evening, we attempted to find out what was the outcome of that meeting and if an agreement was reached; however, Schulte informed us that he is not presently able to speak on the matter because he is “bound by a non-disclosure.”

We also tried to contact Brett Feinstein, but we were not able to get his comments on the matter.

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