The Morgan Resort Spa and Village in Beacon Hill. (Photo courtesy official website of The Morgan Resort)
PHILIPSBURG–The Administrative Court on Monday came to a different conclusion than the Court of First Instance in September 2020, ruling in favour of Country St. Maarten in denying long-lease and water rights to Alegria Real Estate NV.
Monday’s ruling is the latest development in the ongoing legal battles between Country St. Maarten and Alegria, which operates boutique hotel The Morgan Resort Spa and Village in Beacon Hill.
In early 2018, Alegria made a request to then-Minister of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment, and Infrastructure VROMI Miklos Giterson for long-lease rights for an area of approximately 13,525 square metres of water for the development of the hotel in providing “additional service” to tourists and “resident clients.”
After more than two years of communication with VROMI civil servants and government lawyers, then-VROMI Minister Chris Wever informed the ministry’s secretary-general Louis Brown in early March 2020 that he had no issues with the breakwater and the pier “once they [Alegria – Ed.] can ensure no corals are damaged.”
Alegria believed that government was stalling and filed an injunction with the court, which led to a settlement agreement in early May 2020 in which it was agreed that the hotel would receive its desired long-lease and water rights.
However, during those two months current VROMI Minister Egbert Doran took over the post from Wever. Doran believed government lawyer Aernout Kraaijeveld, who led the negotiations, was not authorised to close the agreement. Alegria then resumed legal proceedings.
This culminated in the Court of First Instance’s verdict on September 4, 2020, which ordered Country St. Maarten to issue an area of approximately 13,525 square metres of water rights in long lease to Alegria Real Estate NV within two days. In case of non-compliance, Country St. Maarten would have to pay daily penalties of NAf. 10,000, up to a maximum of NAf. 1 million. Government indicated that it would appeal the verdict.
However, Doran ignored this ruling, and denied Alegria’s long-lease request on October 6, 2020.
“The decision of the injunction judge in the civil matter does not deter me from my administrative right to make a decision on a pending request as was filed by Algeria for the water parcel,” he told reporters during the Council of Ministers press briefing a day after the denial.
Doran’s move was not without risks. Alegria was likely to contest the decision at the Administrative Court – which it did, filing papers on November 17, 2020 – and if this court ruled in Alegria’s favour, then the already-cash-strapped government would have been out substantial sums of money.
The Administrative Court heard the case on March 15. Alegria wanted the court to declare Doran’s October 2020 decision null and void, to order him to take a new decision within two weeks of a verdict, and to issue financial penalties in case of non-compliance.
Like in the Court of First Instance last year, Alegria’s lawyer Charles Rutte argued that previous e-mail exchanges and negotiations constituted a binding agreement, and that Alegria could trust that Kraaijeveld had been appointed to act on government’s behalf.
The Administrative Court on Monday struck down Alegria’s case, upholding Doran’s decision to deny the long-lease and water rights.
“The defendant [Country St. Maarten – Ed.] stated in the (contested) decision that the secretary-general and the lawyer were not authorised to enter into a settlement agreement,” said the Administrative Court in its verdict, referring to the National Ordinance on the issue of long lease land. “The e-mail exchange regarding an agreement cannot therefore bind the competent decision-maker, which is, in this case, the VROMI minister.”
Rutte also argued that Doran’s denial was carelessly and hurriedly prepared. The Administrative Court also rejected this claim.
“The defendant gave extensive reasons in the rejection … based on, among other things, advice from the Department of Domain Affairs, the St. Maarten Nature Foundation, and the Policy Department,” ruled the Court. “There has been no evidence of careless preparation, as Alegria argues. Additionally, it has not emerged that Alegria’s interests have been insufficiently considered by the defendant.”
Monday’s ruling may not end the legal battles between government and Alegria, as the latter still has the right to lodge an appeal.