Wednesday, October 7, 1998

Victory for leasehold
condominium owners

MANDATORY sales of leasehold condominium land to apartment owners can proceed following the U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of the Bishop Estate's challenge of Honolulu's leasehold conversion ordinance. The Bishop Estate plans to challenge condemnation actions on a building-by-building basis, but the condo owners seeking land ownership clearly will have the upper hand. The high court rejected the estate's appeal of last year's ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the ordinance.

This followed the 1984 Supreme Court decision upholding the 1967 Hawaii land reform act allowing mandatory conversion of leasehold houselots to homeowners, a victory for public policy at the expense of property rights.

Approved by the City Council in 1991, the ordinance extended the scope of leasehold conversion to owner-occupants of condominiums. It permits owners of more than half a building's units, or at least 25 owners, to buy the land underneath their buildings through the condemnation process if the landowner refuses to sell, at a price determined by the courts.

The effect of the high court's ruling will not be as sweeping as it might have been if the Bishop Estate, under public pressure, had not reversed course and begun offering most of its condo land for sale to apartment owner-occupants.

As many as 8,000 apartment units already have been involved in land sales. Fewer than half of Oahu's 30,000 remaining leasehold condominium apartments are occupied by owners, making them eligible for mandatory conversion.

There is less concentration of land ownership in leasehold condominiums than there was in residential houselots, where a few large estates dominated. But this difference did not affect the outcome of the case.

The state's limping economy may be a factor in how rapidly condo owners can be expected to move to buy the land under their buildings. While they may not be in strong financial condition to push for conversion, currently depressed land prices may be an enticement.

The Bishop Estate plans to challenge the law's application, and so may some smaller landowners. The resulting cases could keep a number of lawyers busy. In addition, business people may now press for similar opportunities to purchase the land they are leasing beneath their stores and offices.

After more than three decades, this emotional dispute over property rights has produced a major victory for condominium owners, but the last chapter has yet to be written.

Bishop Estate Archive

Marcos prevails

IMELDA Marcos has won another legal battle. The Philippine Supreme Court overturned a lower court's 1993 decision finding her guilty of graft in a case stemming from her years as first lady and sentencing her to 12 years in prison.

Info Box Marcos had seemed headed for prison in January when a five-judge division of the court upheld her conviction and sentence. But she brought her case to the full bench, which cleared her by an 8-5 vote, finding that the prosecution had failed to prove its case.

In the 1993 ruling, Marcos was found guilty of leasing state-owned land to a medical foundation she headed under terms that prosecutors said were grossly disadvantageous to the government. The land was owned by a government agency she headed.

The prosecutors said the government lost up to $445,000 in the 25-year lease. Marcos had said she used the earnings from the lease to improve facilities at a government hospital for the poor.

The outcome recalled her 1990 acquittal on federal fraud charges in New York following the death of the former dictator in Hawaii. In beating these charges and repairing her image in the Philippines, she seems to lead a charmed life.

The latest victory left Marcos opponents stunned and warning that it could lead to a return of the Marcos family to power. A son and daughter are currently members of the House of Representatives. Marcos had also won election to the House, but did not seek re-election last May.

President Joseph Estrada is a Marcos sympathizer, in contrast to his two predecessors, Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos, who were instrumental in the overthrow of the Marcoses. Marcos is still facing dozens of criminal and civil suits based on her alleged misdeeds during her husband's regime, but it is doubtful that they will be pursued vigorously by the Estrada administration, especially now that this conviction has been reversed.

There is also the $2 billion judgment handed down in Honolulu against the Marcos fortune in favor of the regime's human rights victims, and the government's attempts to recover supposed billions in stolen wealth. But these cases could drag on for years.

At age 69 and in shaky health, Marcos isn't likely to re-enter the political arena. But this legal victory could advance her ambitions for her two children. The "iron butterfly" has again demonstrated her survival skills.


Yamanaka’s award

SUCCUMBING to pressures for political correctness, the Association of Asian American Studies rescinded an award it had made to Lois-Ann Yamanaka's novel about children on Molokai because of its negative portrayal of the children's Filipino neighbors.

Now Yamanaka's work, written in a Hawaii vernacular, has won a Lannan Literary Award, which carries a $75,000 prize. She is one of 11 winners of this major national award. The prize is a vindication for the writer, based on literary merit -- not on whether anyone might take offense at some passages.

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