The fire-ravaged area in barangay Lahug is now a bone of contention between City Hall officials and the land owner, the University of the Philippines Cebu.
By the afternoon, Cebu Gov. Hilario Davide III stepped in, saying he was willing to mediate the brewing tension.
“One you fence this area without a permit, we will take it out,” warned Cebu City Administrator Lucelle Mercado in a heated confrontation with UP Dean Liza Corro at the fire site yesterday morning.
The dean was at the site about 10 a.m. with the school’s engineer and architect to stake out the boundaries of a 2,000-square-meter area for a planned UP High School building.
Corro, who was accompanied by five security guards and tanods of barangay Lahug, expressed surprise when a group of city officials later arrived to stop the work in sitio Avocado. Wooden stakes installed by the school were pulled out.
By late afternoon, the city government had put up tents on the site to make its presence known in the sitio, where a Dec. 26 fire had left 890 individuals or about 240 families homeless.
The school, meanwhile, mounted tarpaulin banners showing images of the planned high school building.
The burned area, about 4,000 square meters, was already bulldozed and cleared of debris on orders of Acting City Mayor Edgar Labella. He earlier promised residents they could return there after the city finishes “re-blocking” the area.
The UP Cebu dean stood her ground that the property belonged to the state university and that she already coordinated with barangay Lahug and the Province of Cebu for a two-hectare relocation site in Nivel Hills for the displaced informal settlers.
“You’ve done reblocking in some areas before but these were city-owned lots so you had the right to re-block,” she told Mercado and Collin Roselle, head of the Department of the Welfare of the Urban Poor (DWUP).
“But do you have the courtesy to coordinate with UP Cebu? We are also a government institution,” she said.
Corro asked Cebu city officials what they were doing for a permanent relocation of the 240 families, and pointed out that her letters to City Hall requesting for a coordination meeting after the fire were never answered.
“You have a lot of money. Why don’t you develop the relocation site?” she said, noting that Cebu City still had a P250 million budget for site development and housing available in last year’s budget.
By the afternoon, Governor Davide stepped in and said he was willing to mediate the conflict at the request of the dean.
Davide said his role would not affect the good relationship between the Province of Cebu and Cebu City. He said he was acting as the original donor to confirm the ownership of the land.
To end doubts about ownership, he said the 2.6-hectare lot in Lahug where sitio Avocado is located, and in Camputhaw, was donated by the Province of Cebu to UP in 1963.
“Since 2014, they (the school administration) have been talking with us and requested our assistance if we could give land to informal settlers for their relocation in Nivel Hills. And now we offer that. I already have authority from the Provincial Board to enter into that agreement, to help those who will be affected by the construction of the (new) building,” he said.
According to Dean Corro, four buildings were due for construction in UP’s lot in Lahug but plans were held back because the area was occupied by illegal settlers.
She said contracts have already been awarded for a new high school building in 2013, an extension facility in 2014, and a business management building in 2015.
Yesterday, UP security guards and personnel were all set to mark out boundaries prior to installing a “temporary fence.”
Asked about the city’s requirement for a permit, the dean responded: “Did they (informal settlers here) ask for a fencing permit? We have papers, the title of the land.”
With a new year dawning, Cebu City officials are hard pressed to meet a short-term deadline to help evacuees who have to move out of the Lahug Elementary School before classes resume on Jan. 4.
Prospects of a long-term solution for their relocation or house rebuilding depends on how smoothly discussions go with residents, UP Cebu, barangay Lahug, City Hall and the Province of Cebu.
The crisis management is taking place during the 60-day suspension of Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama, who is usually hands-on in dealing with any major city problem.
‘If we fence it, that’s rubbing salt into a wound,” said Acting Mayor Labella in an interview.
“This is a holiday season. So I admonished them to just be patient. We are not closing the doors for discussion. Let us first address teh concerns of the victims.”
During the verbal confrontation at the fire site, City Administrator Mercado started by asking the dean what she was doing at the site. The dean said they were laying out the boundaries.
“Actually we wrote a letter to Acting Mayor Labella asking for coordination. Our architect and engineer went to City Hall on Dec. 28 but no one entertained them. They went to the Office of the Building Official, and we wrote a letter asking for coordination. No one replied,” she said.
Roselle of DWUP said the school should have talked with the people first because they are the ones mainly affected by the calamity.
The dean said she already did that by visiting fire victims in the Lahug Elementary School in the presence of Lahug barangay officials, to show the land title and explain UP’s long-delayed expansion plans as well as the offer for a relocation site.
Residents don’t want that, said Domindaor Cafe, legal counsel of the Lahug Central Home Owners association.
Some residents witnessing the verbal exchange shouted that they don’t want to be relocated and that they want to return to sitio Avocado.
Cafe said some residents went to Nivel Hills and found it “not livable”. Dean Corro said several public school teachers were living there.
“Pwede sa mga maestra sa PPSTA. Di pwede sa inyo? That is exactly the area where the PPSTA is. You have a lot of money in Cebu City. If that is not enough for you, why don’t you develop the site?” she said.
In a separate interview, the dean said she was confused about Cebu city government’s role in the post-fire situation and their reluctance to sit down with the school to find a win-win solution.
“If only the city and barangay officials can agree with each other, UP Cebu should not be placed in between and caught in the crossfire. The people in Lahug should not also be placed in between because of all the bickering,” she told CDN.
“We are just looking for a long-term solution for the informal settlers. We were the ones who asked the help of the province for a relocation site. Let the city develop the site; it is habitable.”