Briones: Ongoing legal battle of Maritima

The Compaña Maritima is a stone’s throw away from the new Cebu City Hall building.

It’s not even a building anymore. It’s more of a shell of its former self after typhoon Ruping destroyed its roof. When it sustained structural damage during the earthquake in 2013, the City’s Department of Engineering and Public Works declared it “off limits.”

It was built in 1910 “on a reclaimed land where the then new port of Cebu was established” and was originally known as the Fernandez Building being owned by brothers Jose and Ramon Fernandez. It housed offices before it served as a hotel during the 1930s.

Bombed during World War II, it was repaired and became the headquarters of the Compaña Maritima de Cebu, a pre-war transportation company whose vessels sailed around western and southern Mindanao ports.

The building was abandoned in 1980 when the company filed for bankruptcy.

By the way, I got the background from Wikipedia. However, if you search “Compaña Maritima” on the internet, the information is mostly the same with a few variance. But for the purpose of this column, I will stick to the one above.

So why has it been in the news lately?

You see the Cebu City Government and the Cebu Port Authority (CPA) have been playing a tug of war over ownership of the ruins and its surrounding property, which have a total area of just over half a hectare.

To those who still don’t know, the disputed area is being developed by Megawide as part of its joint venture agreement with the City to modernize and improve the Carbon Public Market.

Or should I say “was” since work was stopped when the CPA filed a petition for a writ of preliminary injunction (WPI) to stop the City from occupying any portion of the property, which the Regional Trial Court granted last December.

Then on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023, the CPA posted four tarpaulins containing two pages of the WPI to remind the City of who owns the structure and even posted security guards to make sure there are no trespassers.

The move prompted Mayor Michael Rama to declare that he was prepared “to go to war” against the CPA for insisting on being the rightful owner.

So what is the CPA’s basis for ownership? Does it even have a title or proof that it is the rightful owner?

In a SunStar Cebu report that came out on July 10, 2015, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) said the City’s claim lacks legal basis.

The OSG said “the State has ‘equitable title’ to the entire baseport of Cebu, including Compaña Maritima.”

From what I can gather on Wikipedia, “the port area near the Compaña Maritima was reclaimed to construct the viaduct that connected the tunnel from the SRP (South Road Properties) to McArthur Blvd., and the resulting reclaimed lot was given by the Department of Public Works and Highways to the CPA through a memorandum of agreement (MOA).”

CPA’s legal officer claimed “that a land title as proof of ownership was not necessary as the government owned ‘foreshore areas.’”

The MOA only covers the lot reclaimed during the building of the viaduct, right? So how does that include the Compaña Maritima and the adjacent property, which clearly have been there for over a century? And as far as I can remember, the premises have not been used for docking operations and berthing for quite some time.

My questions do not stop there. I want to know the area coverage of the CPA’s claim. Does it even have a technical description of the area it is claiming?

But like any other dispute, there are always two sides. It’s just easier to understand the City Government’s reasoning.

Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, in The Freeman report on Sept. 10, 2015, said they have evidence that the CPA is the rightful owner.

Hilbay cited a letter dated Oct. 28, 2012 wherein lawyer Evangeline Abatayo, the then overall chairperson of the Cebu City Sportsfest 2012-2013, requested the CPA to temporarily use the Compaña Maritima premises for their activities.

I can go on about “Republic Act” this or that the CPA has been pointing out, but I am actually biased for the City Government since it is doing something in the area after decades of neglect.