FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Land is our scarcest resource. Our archipelago is not growing. Our land policies, intended to conserve agricultural land, heightened the shortage and pushed up real property prices astronomically.

In order to acquire large pieces of land in urban areas, it is often necessary for some magic to happen. There are enough criminal syndicates with political and business connections that can produce land titles out of thin air.

At the very heart of Binondo, two splendid real estate developments stand out literally above aging structures around it. These are: a condominium building called City Place at Manila and a large retail building called Lucky Chinatown Mall. Both were built by one of the country’s mega developers.

The titles to the land on which both structures stand, however, have been strongly challenged in court.

On Feb. 28, 2018, the Land Registration Authority Task Force Titulong Malinis issued a report saying there appears to be strong reason to question the authenticity of of the certificates of title to the land on which the two mega structures sit.

It turns out, the mall and condominium buildings sit on land set aside in 1904 as a military reservation. A document provided by the US Archives shows that a piece of land called “Cuartel Meisic,” along with Fort Santiago and the Malate Barracks, were set aside as military reservations. The order was signed by the US Secretary of War and US president Theodore Roosevelt.

The authenticated copy of that document was provided the Philippine embassy in Washington. It was authenticated by Mike Pompeo, then US Secretary of State.

The delineations for Cuartel Meisic conform exactly to the area subsequently covered by TCT Nos. 283867 and 283868, constituting the land on which the two mega developments have been built. By law, military reservations are “beyond the commerce of man.” They cannot be sold except through the passage of a law.

In 1954, then president Ramon Magsaysay issued Proclamation No. 46 that assigned the military reservation for the use of the City of Manila as sites for the Meisic Police Station, the Jose Abad Santos High School and the Meisic Health Center. This presidential proclamation gave the City of Manila usufruct rights to the property. It did not transfer ownership of the military reservation to the local government.

The City of Manila, therefore, cannot sell what it did not own. The land, however neglected as it might have been, belongs to the Republic of the Philippines. Cuartel Meisic enjoys the same status as Fort Santiago. It is inalienable.

This raises the question: How was it at all possible that this piece of land was transferred to a private corporation, eventually as a site for a condominium and a mall?

Some private individuals and business entities raised exactly that question before the trial court some years ago. The trial court dismissed their petitions on the ground they did not have the legal personalities to question the matter. The court also claimed the matter was beyond its jurisdiction.

The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) reviewed the facts of the case and arrived at the conclusion that the trial court erred in dismissing the petitions questioning the authenticity of the titles used for the condominium and the mall. The OSG insisted the Regional Trial Court has jurisdiction to cancel a fake, spurious or void title.

The government legal counsel likewise agreed that the status of Cuartel Meisic as a military reservation subsists, putting the property beyond the commerce of man. It cites various precedents that establish that the Land Registration Court has no jurisdiction over non-registrable properties that form part of the public domain.

The OSG, based on its carefully crafted comment, asked for a Petition for Review and Certiorari and that the case be remanded to Regional Trial Court of Manila, Branch 1 where the case could be tried on its merits.

The position taken by the OSG favors the petitioners, who have maintained that the mall and the condominium project sit on inalienable public land. They have asked the City of Manila to cancel the business permits issued these entities for possibly fraudulent use of land titles. They have likewise written the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Philippine Stock Exchange to suspend corporate registration and suspend trading of the shares of the large property developer, since the two huge projects sit on land “evidently plundered.”

The firm stand of the OSG on the issues involved in this case ensures the petition against the property developer will persist. Being a civil case, however, it will likely drag on for some time. The giant property developer, after all, has all the means to hire the best lawyers to protect its interests.

As the case awaits a final ruling, many more public interest issues will emerge. How was it even possible for land set aside as a military reservation to be retitled and sold to a private entity?

We have known for many years that our land registration system is vulnerable and that judges siting in lower courts have often been reluctant to upset the rich and the powerful. This has been the source of the most intense grievances in our society.

The Cuartel Meisic case condenses all the flaws in our system and all the challenges facing efforts to right wrongs in our society. In this case, a fully documented and properly delineated military reservation disappeared before our very eyes.

This has to be magic.

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