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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

PIP lawmakers: Expropriations in San Germán do not follow due process

Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago Negrón

By The Star Staff

Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago Negrón and San Germán municipal assemblyman Joel Vega Torres have accused the southern city’s mayor of expropriating residents’ properties through a private contractor, Universal Properties, without following due process.

The PIP senator said late last week that several lawsuits filed against Mayor Virgilio Olivera Olivera involve irregularities with eminent domain cases. The PIP became aware of the problem in San Germán after a citizen learned that his property had been declared a public nuisance without proper notification and in violation of the Municipal Code.

The only notification the homeowner received that his property would be declared a public nuisance was through a sign placed on the property by Universal Properties, which acts as an agent of the municipality.

The subsequent notice received by the resident was a court summons, informing him that the municipality, through the mayor, intended to acquire the property, valued at one time at $43,000, without paying him a penny of compensation.

The case is the latest example of a pattern denounced initially by Santiago Negrón and PIP Rep. Denis Márquez Lebrón in March in a complaint filed with the Department of Justice. The lawmakers have said 22 municipalities have hired Universal Properties and the Francis & Gueits law firm to manage declarations of public nuisances and eminent domain proceedings. The legislators claimed that municipalities are declaring properties in good condition a public nuisance without adequately notifying the owners and without paying compensation.

San Germán has at least 12 eminent domain lawsuits in the courts in which the homeowners argue numerous due process irregularities. Olivera did not answer requests for comment.

Expropriation gives the government the right to acquire land in the hands of private ownership, even if its owner does not want to sell. To limit potential abuses, the government’s use of such power is typically restricted only to cases in which it needs to acquire the land for a public purpose. However, there are cases when such power is extended to allow land assembly to attract private investment.

Olivera allegedly has acted to expropriate private property without

the authorization of the municipal assembly as required by the General Law of Expropriations for such cases, the PIP lawmakers said.

In all cases, the municipality alleges that it does not have to pay anything for the expropriation, under the theory that the expenses incurred by Universal Properties should be deducted from the appraisal price of each property, they said.

“The reality is that the law, in expropriations for public utility, only allows for the deduction of fines, and the necessary and convenient expenses to overcome the condition of public nuisance,” the lawmakers said. “Universal, which in these cases has not done any maintenance or cleaning work, requested that the exorbitant amount of $26,345 be subtracted from the compensation of each of the expropriated citizens to cover company expenses such as: $950 for internet and use of digital platform; $4,500 for publication of edicts in newspapers, $150 for office supplies, $200 for billing and others.”

The company claims the same amount in each case, for a total of $289,795. If the mayor, as plaintiff in the cases, is accepting those expenses, he has to find another form of legal collection that does not imply leaving the people of San Germán who he will deprive of their property, without fair compensation, the lawmakers said. Fair compensation in cases of expropriation is a constitutional mandate.

Among other expenses Universal claims are $6,000 for “pre-acquisition costs,” in which an “applicant-acquirer” is named. “Suppose Universal indeed has a buyer for those 11 properties; it must adhere to the process provided in Article 4.010 of the Municipal Code (not the General Expropriation Law),” the PIP lawmakers said. “The process states that for a public nuisance to be put up for sale, it must first appear in the Inventory that the Municipality has made publicly accessible. It must also have an appraisal accepted by the buyer, and the money that the buyer delivered in the court.”

Failure to comply with that process makes a false representation to the court (and to the acquiring applicant, who probably gave Universal a considerable amount for a house that the privatizer and the municipality intend to obtain without paying the owner anything), and the municipal administration should not be part of that scheme, they said.

“Given this scenario, today I sent a letter to the mayor in which I bring this situation to his attention and how Universal is making false representations to the court on behalf of the municipality and the mayor himself, and I also request that as the plaintiff, he desist from these lawsuits,” Vega Torres said Friday. “In the same way, I presented a resolution before the municipal assembly to order the municipality to withdraw these 11 lawsuits.”

Santiago Negrón said she has referred the matter to the secretary of Justice and the commonwealth comptroller.

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