MARIGOT--First Vice-President Guillaume Arnell said Monday the Collectivité cannot intervene in the Minville family land dispute as the land falls under private ownership and not under domain land that has been handed over to the Collectivité by the State.
"If it was Collectivité land this case would have already been sorted out by now," he said.
Given the recent court ruling and heavy fines, Arnell added the only option left for the family is to try and come to a "friendly agreement" with Société des Hôtels Caraïbes for a compromise on division of the land, acceptable to both parties, that would give the Minville family some peace of mind at least and in this regard he is willing to act as a mediator.
The land in question is that of Morne Rond, an area starting at the St. Martin Tourism Office and stretching down to the Sandy Ground Bridge. The disputed Minville land lies on the ocean side between Le Pirate and the bridge.
Arnell acknowledged he became aware of the Minville situation only on December 12, 2014, when they explained it to him at a number of meetings that followed. The case goes back as far as 1974 with the first court case held in 1983. His department is currently dealing with a number of domain land issues.
"Domain land concerns land that is owned by the Collectivité and persons who are occupying the land without ownership," he explained. "We are attempting to legalise those people. There are three aspects to the domain land issue: land that was partly sold years ago by the State which applies to some people, other people who have managed to get title or ownership by going through the "50 pas" agency in Guadeloupe before we became a Collectivité – the State started that process – and people who have been able to acquire domain land via the State recently.
"Now when we became a Collectivité the State turned over all the domain land to us and it is that land that we are trying to regulate. But when we looked at Morne Rond we found parcels of land where the Collectivité was not the owner and therefore as private properties they had to be excluded. The portion of Minville land does not concern the Collectivité; it's a dispute between two private parties, Minville and Société des Hôtels Caraïbes."
Arnell explained that he was told by the family that their lawyer did not defend them in the appeal court and the judgement was therefore upheld. The lawyer further advised against going to the Final Court of Appeal (Cour de Cassation) and instead to go to the European Court of Justice. However, it emerged that the European Court could not help the family as it had not used all three levels of the court system, i.e. Court of First instance, Appeal Court and Final Appeal Court beforehand.
"There isn't any doubt the Minville family was occupying the land before Société des Hôtels Caraïbes came into the picture but the Minville documents show there are inaccuracies over the description and measurement of the exact portion of land," continued Arnell. "But that doesn't mean the land did not belong to them."
He disclosed at one point during the long legal process Société des Hôtels Caraïbes proposed to make an amicable settlement with the family.
"The family refused the offer because they believed they were in the right from the beginning. I have told the family that I can try to mediate with the other owner to work something out. The other option was to bring in a national mediator appointed by the French Government, but we found out a national mediator can only assist when there have been no prior court cases.
"The family has asked me to see if the other party will be willing to reconsider the original friendly settlement offer made to the family some years ago. But now the challenge is to find the exact names of the correct people to negotiate with, as the documents just have hotel names that don't exist anymore. From what I understand from the family, they are willing to keep the portion of the land that has been constructed on and let the hotel society have the vacant part."
Arnell said it was highly unlikely Société des Hôtels Caraïbes would get to the point of demolishing buildings as this would cause massive social unrest in the community.
"The family is right to keep the population informed, that at least keeps Hôtels Caraïbes from thinking all is well. I understand the family's position, it's very unfortunate. They must either accept the judgement or go for the settlement. Our interest is to force Hôtels Caraïbes to come back to the negotiating table."