Oct. 3, 2017, 6:20 a.m.
A CRUCIAL review process will be undertaken in Suva this week to assess applications for an extension to a 2-year construction deadline set out in the amended Land Sales Act (2014).
This timeframe was enacted in December 2014, and requires foreign landowners of vacant Freehold or State land (purchased for residential purposes) to construct residential dwellings at a minimum cost of FJD $250,000 within a 24-month period.
The amendments followed concerns on the acquisition of Freehold land by non-citizens who did not undertake any actual on-site development.
Its enactment drew calls for a revocation by the expatriate community of Freehold landowners, particularly from a group calling themselves the Fiji Foreign Land Owners Association (FLOA).
Following widespread destruction and challenges by Tropical Cyclone Winston in February this year, a further amendment to the Act was made, enabling affected foreign landowners to apply to a Review Committee for an extension to the 24-month timeframe, which ends December 31.
This week, the Review Committee will finally be sitting under the chairmanship of the Permanent Secretary of Economy, Makereta Konrote, as confirmed by Acting Prime Minister, Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.
Speaking at the recent Prime Minister’s International Business Awards, the AG noted that 15 applications for an extension have been received.
He highlighted that a country with limited land surface such as Fiji could not afford to leave tracts of land unproductive, and as such, has made it a priority to encourage indigenous landowners to lease unused land to others.
“And in the case of limited Freehold land that is available, to discourage foreign speculators from sitting on land they’ve purchased and do nothing with it,” he noted.
The Land Sales Act, he reiterated, was to regulate the sale, transfer or lease of State land or Freehold land for residential purposes to non-residents, following numerous concerns against the practise of “land grabs” by foreign citizen acquiring Freehold land in Fiji for residential purposes without undertaking any actual development.
“Indeed, it is important to highlight that there are no restrictions on non-residents from leasing I Taukei land and for residential purposes or indeed for any other purposes – whether for commercial, industrial, or agricultural, whatsoever.”
Over 91 per cent of all land in Fiji comes under indigenous ownership, with the rest either Freehold or State land, spurring Government to encourage the development of indigenously owned land for greater returns to their land-owning units.
“However, the practise has been that non-residents have only been interested in acquiring Freehold land for residential purposes and leaving it undeveloped for decades, with no interest in leasing I Taukei land or developing I Taukei land,” Sayed-Khaiyum said.
“The amendments to the Act are designed to ensure that non-residents do not simply purchase State land or Freehold land without undertaking any development and without making any contribution to the Fijian economy.
“For these reasons, the amendments to the Act in December 2014 introduced the prohibition on the sale, transfer or lease of any State land or Freehold land for residential purposes to any non-resident within any town boundary.”
The restrictions only apply to Freehold or State land for residential purposes, and foreigners can still buy land for tourism, industrial or commercial purposes anywhere in Fiji.
Vacant Freehold or State land for residential purposes outside any town boundary can be sold, transferred, or leased to a non-resident if the non-resident purchaser completes construction of a new residential dwelling within 24-months.
For non-residents who already owned vacant Freehold or State land when the amended Land Sales Act was amended, the 24-month period for them to complete construction of a new residential dwelling began from December 2014.
With the deadline approaching, non-compliant foreign landowners will be liable to pay a penalty of 10 percent of the purchase price of the land until the construction is completed amongst other penalties.
While foreign landowners have applied for extensions to the Review Committee, a large number have also opted to quickly sell up by their investments and have either sold or listed their properties at considerably discounted prices ahead of the December 31 deadline.
Any non-resident who makes an application for an extension to the review committee is entitled to appear before the review committee and be heard on the merits of their application.
Sayed-Khaiyum noted that this recognized the possibility of being able to build or not, alongside issues relating to finances, construction, and access to hardware.
These further amendments to the Act, he said, would allow those affected to seek reprieve and therefore, could continue with construction later.
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