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Guamanian Natives Want Their Land Back

(CN) - Guam has not returned land that belongs to ancestral landowners, or provided compensation for it, a landowner claims in a federal class action.

Guam is an unincorporated U.S. territory in the Western Pacific Ocean, and is the largest of the Marianas Islands. The Japanese occupied the area before the United States regained control of the islands during World War II. The U.S. Navy condemned and converted large sections of the island into military bases where the Antonio Won Pat International Airport now sits.

The airport authority and Guam itself are the lead defendants in the federal complaint in Hagatna. Also sued are the territory's governor, the chairman of the airport board, and the chairwoman of the Guam Ancestral Lands Commission.

The land the airport occupies was appraised at $51.2 million in 2000, making it some of the most valuable property in Guam, according to lead plaintiff Vicente Palacios Crawford.

He claims the Guam International Airport Authority received $66.5 million in revenue in 2012, including $4 million in income through airport property rentals, and reported $52.5 million in operating income that year.

Crawford says that instead of making money on renting the properties, they should be returned to the rightful owners, or the ancestral landowners should be properly compensated.

Crawford owns lot 5204, in Tiyan, Barriga. He says he filed an Ancestral Title and Compensation Application with the Guam Ancestral Lands Commission and a Claim of Interest with the Department of Land Management, which was verified by both agencies, but has not been compensated for the airport's use of his family's land.

Lands taken by the U.S. government during World War II were handed back to the Guam government in 1945 under the Guam Land Transfer Act. Crawford concedes that some of the land has since been returned to landowners, but not all.

"Since the passage of the Guam Land Transfer Act, the U.S. has transferred excess lands to the government of Guam as its military operations in Guam decreased," the complaint states. "Although Guam has returned many of those properties to its ancestral landowners, it retains possession of large amounts of ancestral land. The ancestral landowners whose lands have not been returned to them are referred to 'dispossessed ancestral landowners.'"

Crawford says the families who have not had their land returned, or have not been compensated, face an unfair system to determine compensation rights.

"The procedures Guam has established to compensate dispossessed ancestral landowners ... (i) place the burden of obtaining compensation on the landowners, (ii) arbitrarily limit the sources and amount of compensation, and (iii) provide no mechanism for determining the value of ancestral land claims and the compensation owed," according to the complaint. "Ancestral landowners whose property the government of Guam retains have not had their lands returned and have not received full compensation."

Crawford seeks class certification, wants the court to order the government to treat the class the same as the other ancestral landowners who have received "complete relief," by properly valuing their claims and providing "full" compensation.

He also seeks disgorgement of the money the government made by its use of the class's lands, and damages for breach of contract and unjust enrichment.

He is represented by Ignacio Aguigui, in Tamuning, Guam; and Daniel Girard and Scott Grzenczyk, with Girard Gibbs, in San Francisco.

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