P6-B real estate development in Bataan hangs

A potential P6-billion real estate and agro-industrial investment in a first-class municipality in Bataan is at risk of being lost owing to a questionable move of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) revoking a 2007 Supreme Court (SC) ruling declaring a 200-hectare property for industrial use.

The case of the Riverforest Development Corporation (RDC) of Litton family, who owns the property in Hermosa, Bataan, is now pending before the Court of Appeals (CA), which will decide whether or not the DAR’s move in 2013 to classify the land as up for distribution to farmer-tenants.

Art Boquiren, legal counsel for RDC, said the DAR’s move greatly surprised the Litton family and interested investors given that the ruling of the SC the property was for industrial use was final, and the previous leadership of the agency already conceded to the decision of the high court. 

“The predominant use of the land around us is agro-industrial. There’re a lot of poultry farms and chicken processing plants, even some piggeries. So that’s what we’re eyeing. We’ve conducted surveying, environmental studies, hydrological studies, and all the technical studies for the development,” Boquiren told Property Report PH.

He said experts from the Department of Agriculture and the private sector separately found the property to be economically unsuitable for agriculture, findings that were never contested.

He said RDC has already spent over P100 million for the geodetic survey and fencing that spans nearly 10 kilometers. Most of all, it has a long-set plan to put up a village for all the longtime and legitimate residents within the land, he said.

According to documents and court filings, the revocation of the DAR, under then Secretary Virgilio delos Reyes, was based on the grounds that RDC did not obtain a development permit within five years from the time the conversion was granted by the SC.

RDC in its appeal to the DAR and to the Office of the President (OP), stressed the SC clearly adopted the Torres Resolution en toto which stated that the running of the five-year period to develop the property will start from the time the landowner obtains a development permit, and not from the time the conversion is granted.

RDC also stated in the appeal that it worked toward obtaining a development permit but it could not do so as the SANAMABASU, the entity that has been opposing its conversion, harassed the surveyors and workers of the company when it was surveying the property, constructing the fence and doing technical studies in preparation for the development of the property.

Boquiren said RDC was delayed in its project because it had to go to court to obtain two separate injunctions just so it can proceed to do its development work.

Moreover, when RDC was applying for a development permit, it learned for the first time that an adverse claim was annotated in the titles by SANAMABASU—the group opposing the development—that Boquiren described as both spurious and illegal, and apparently done in connivance with some corrupt deeds registry officials.

Even accepting the argument of delos Reyes, the delays in obtaining the development permit were not attributable to the landowner but were directly caused by SANAMABASU members, “the very people who petitioned that the conversion be revoked and the very people for whom the former DAR chief sought to bring the property under CARP coverage,” Boquiren said.

In 2019, the OP delos Reyes’ revocation based solely on unauthenticated photos purportedly taken on the property showing that a portion of the property is planted with some crops. 

The Litton family filed a motion for reconsideration but the OP dismissed the MR due to a supposed technicality, but based on the wrong information, he said.

The OP claimed that RDC lawyers did not file the MR within 15 days from the time he received the decision. 

“The truth of the matter is that our lawyer filed our MR within the 15-day period prescribed. However, the OP overlooked the fact they sent their decision to our previous lawyer who, by the time of the decision, had already filed a Notice of Withdrawal as our counsel from the case,” Boquiren said.

The company registered its substitution of the legal counsel before the OP decision was rendered and yet, he was never sent a copy of the same. 

It was the new lawyer who had to go to the OP to obtain a copy of the decision. Thereafter, he filed our appeal within the 15-day period required by the rules. 

Upon dismissal of the case in the OP, the Littons filed an appeal to the Court of Appeals where the case is pending.

“If the property is not suitable for agriculture, why then cover the property under the agrarian reform program?” Boquiren asked.

He also pointed out the property is zoned as “industrial” and is included, along with four other adjoining barangays, as part of the Hermosa Agro-Industrial zone.

The industrial classification and zoning passed by the Sangguniang Bayan of Hermosa had been ratified by the Sangunniang Panglalawigan of Bataan and has since been integrated into the provincial zoning plan, he said.

He said the SC also found there are no tenants in Sumalo and that those opposing the development are “mere occupants” and not real parties in interest.

He said the original plan was to divide the property nearly equal halves, one for agro-industrial business, and the other, for real estate.

Boquiren disclosed a major real estate developer, which he did not name, is very much interested in developing the entire 200-hectare property, and was not bothered by the pending case as it appears that the law was on the side of the Litton family.

He said the developer estimated the project to cost at least P4 billion that would create a minimum of 2,000 to 3,000 jobs for the construction phase alone.

The RDC also plans to put up a public market to strengthen the local economy and set aside 20 to 25 hectares for the original tenants located along the road, he said.

He said Hermosa Mayor Antonio Joseph Inton and Bataan Gov. Albert Garcia were supportive of the development plans for the property.