CEO’s land procedures under microscope

By Rowland A. Parks Staff Reporter

The Lands Department has issued a statement regarding a lease cancellation and the subsequent granting of the lease to relatives of the former CEO of the Ministry of Natural Resources, Beverly Castillo.
In the January 2 press release from the Commissioner of Lands, the department is insisting that it followed the proper procedure, when it cancelled Bernadette Pickwood lease on a corner lot, in Belama
The release ends saying: “The Department wishes to further clarify that the lease was forfeited due to breach of lease conditions regarding development and payment of rent and not as per instructions of former Chief Executive Officer of Ministry of Natural Resources, Ms. Beverly Castillo, who has no legal authority to forfeit and or cancel any lease.”
But Pickwood’s attorney, Audrey Matura-Shepherd said Thursday that unfortunately that is the position of the Commissioner of Lands, because had he read the letter that his legal advisor sent and his own press release, he would know that they are contradicting themselves.
Matura-Shepherd said Pickwood does not owe any rent. She also disputes the assertion that her client received a letter informing her that her lease would be cancelled.
The Belize Bank has also written to the Lands Department, inquiring how come they are relocating a lease for which the bank has a charge, when no notice was sent to the bank, Matura-Shepherd informed.
Matura-Shepherd said that the government has to gazette every forfeiture.
“Until you gazette it and make it final, you cannot issue that lease to anyone,” Matura-Shepherd explained.
“Anyone who understands the power play would question why the land ended up in the name of Castillo’s relatives,” Matura-Shepherd said. “Let them explain that.”
According to information coming out of the Lands Department, Matura-Shepherd said, the government’s purchase price to Castillo’s relatives was s a mere $800 for a prime piece of land which is valued at thousands of dollars.
The Supreme Court granted an injunction on Monday, December 30, to Bernadette Pickwood, whose lease was cancelled under suspicious circumstances and given to relatives of Beverly Castillo.
Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin granted the injunction, which went into effect immediately, prohibiting the Castillo family from continuing construction on the land, located at the corner of Albert Hoy and Chetumal Streets. The injunction is to last until January 21.
Matura-Shepherd told reporters Monday morning that one of the last things that Beverly Castillo did before she resigned as CEO to enter politics (Castillo is a candidate in the UDP Belize Rural Central convention race) was to strip Pickwood of her lease and give it to her mother, Maud Williams and her son, Mervin Castillo Jr., in November.
Matura-Shepherd contends that the lease cancellation was done without the proper notification from the Lands Department, thus denying her client natural justice.
Pickwood, Matura-Shepherd said, had made an investment in the property and had also taken out a loan with the Belize Bank.
But upon a recent visit to Belize, during the Christmas holidays, Pickwood discovered that construction was being carried out on the land that she has been leasing from the government since the early 1990s.
On this trip she had plans to cap the last remaining three piles and begin constructing the foundation and beams for her dream retirement home.
Matura-Shepherd said that Pickwood contacted her about two weeks ago, when she learned that construction was being carried out on the lot.
Matura-Shepherd said that Pickwood found out that the government had cancelled her lease on November 1, without giving her notice, as is required under provisions of the National Lands Act, which says that the person whose lease is being cancelled should be given an opportunity to defend his/her position.
“But what you find on the record at Lands Department is that on that same day when they officially cancelled her lease, they transferred it to the name of Maud Williams and Mervin Castillo Jr.,” Matura Shepherd said.
“On the 1st November, the records will show that they forfeited her lease and on that same day gave it to someone else. Now the Lands Department told me that on the 1st of November they sent out a letter. So where is the good faith? You mean she only had an hour before you lodge someone else’s name!… I am sorry – bad faith,” Matura-Shepherd pointed out.
According to Bernard Pickwood Jr., Bernadette’s brother, his sister had applied to the Lands Department for the title to the land, but she was told that she needed to first build on it.
Pickwood, added: “Yet right now, at the Lands Department they are getting ready to issue title to these people who have not built anything as yet.”
Pickwood said that an issue of rent arrears had come up, but that has been taken care of already.
In a letter to Matura-Shepherd, the Lands Department’s Legal Counsel noted that the lease was cancelled due to non-development and non-payment of rent. Pickwood has not built a house with a value of at least $45,000, within the three year period that the lease stipulates. The lease was issued to Pickwood in 1993.

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