KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – A Vermont man and his family have been given until Sunday to remove their house or have it demolished as the government prepares to construct a bridge in the South Leeward community.
The Unity Labour Party (ULP) government has allocated EC$1.39 million for the construction of the Vermont-Francois Bridge, Minister of Works Sen. Julian Francis told Parliament last October.
He said that while construction of the bridge was scheduled to begin before Independence – Oct. 27 – it was being delayed by a resident at the site and asked South Leeward representative and opposition legislator, Nigel Stephenson to ask the occupant to move.
Taiwan last month gave the government EC$3,423,911.43, from which the Vermont-Francois Bridge project will get two separate amounts of EC$402,300 and EC$581,770.
The authorities have served notice to Emrol John that if he does not relocated by this Sunday not only will his three-bedroom concrete and wooden house be demolished, but he will also have to pay the cost of demolition.
John has been living in the spot since 2000, where he built the house that is also home to his common-law wife Cherry Herbert and their four children — ages 7, 13, 18, and 21.
Reports reaching I-Witness News indicate that the spot on which the house was built was initially a garbage heap for the community.
John was not given permission to construct his house there but I-Witness News understands that state authorities gave him the relevant documents to facilitate the connection of water and electricity to the house.
And Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace, who visited the family yesterday, said that when the state facilitated the connection of electricity and water to John’s house, they legitimized his residence.
Eustace, however, said that John is being victimised because he switched his support from the ULP to the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), which Eustace leads.
“The project … has funding in it for relocation which could be used for relocating his house. He has no objection to relocation,” Eustace said in an NDP audio recording reaching to I-Witness News late last night.
Eustace said that while preparatory work was being done for construction of the bridge, “nothing has been done about relocating” John and his family.
“And he has been appealing on radio for assistance and for some show of action and concern on the part of the government. This has had not happened,” Eustace said.
“Yesterday, they were cleaning immediately behind his house, which is already at the edge of the river, and if this continues, all you will find is that the house goes into the river. And the appeal is simple: relocate him,” Eustace said.
He said that while land had been identified to which John could be relocated, “because of his political affiliation, the government does not want to do it.
“The point is, his house is here, he has been facilitated by this very government, the ULP government, with electricity and water to his home. So they in fact have helped to legalise his position on this spot,” said Eustace, who emphasised that funding is available in the project for relocation of the family.
“If he was a ULP supporter, would he have been relocated? Sure! We are asking that his situation be taken into serious consideration and the relocation process commenced,” said Eustace who said John’s situation is an example of the “victimisation” he has been speaking about since
2001 – when the ULP came to office.
Eustace said that while he acknowledged that the bridge is to be built, “The problem is that [John] is not a supporter of the government.
“Every one in this country has a democratic right to support who they wish or to support no party at all. Therefore, let him have his democratic right as a citizen of St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Eustace said.
But the impending demolition is one episode in a saga that has been playing out in the nation’s Parliament since last year.
During the Sept. 29 meeting of Parliament, Member of Parliament for South Leeward, opposition lawmaker Nigel Stephenson asked Housing Minister Francis when work would commence on the bridge.
“Mr Speaker, I will ask the Parliamentary Representative to cooperate with the Ministry of Works in getting the persons whose house is built in the place where this bridge is supposed to go to cooperate with the Ministry and move out before we have to move him,” Francis said.
Francis, while not identifying John by name, said that the house was built “despite advice from the previous minister and the Ministry”.
Stephenson then told lawmakers that he was prepared to cooperate with Francis “as soon as he (Francis) is able to identify an alternative piece of land so that individual can put his house”.
“Because these are not the days when you can arbitrarily tell people they have to relocate and there is not an alternative. As soon as that is done, I am giving you my word, I am prepared to cooperate with you,” Stephenson said.
“Mr. Speaker, despite the policy of the Unity Labour Party, this Minister of Works is not going to recommend that this man be found a spot to relocate because he was advised by persons close to the Member for South Leeward and persons close to the New Democratic Party to put his house there,” Francis responded.
“In this project, there is no allocation for the relocation of that gentleman. He will have to remove his house or it will be removed. And it is not anything to do with politics,” Francis further stated.
Francis noted that residents of Vermont have been asking for the bridge for years, even during the 1984-2001 tenure of South Leeward representative Jerry Scott, who Francis said was the best representative the constituency ever had.
“We went there during the campaign, we spoke about it before this gentleman put his house there. We tried to stop him. We went inside there other people egging him on telling him ‘Man, build your house there; they can’t move it.’ Well, if you want the bridge, ask him to move his house,” Francis said in response to Stephenson’s questions in Parliament on Sept. 29.
Stephenson again raised the issue when Parliament met on Oct. 22, asking if there was “a relocation cost allocated in the contract for any property in the apparent path of the proposed” bridge, how much money, if any was allocated, and who was the owner of the property.
But Francis, citing the rules of the House, said that Stephenson had said on radio that there was a relocation cost in the contract.
Francis noted that, according to the Standing Orders, legislators are not allowed to ask whether statements in the press or of private individual or of unofficial bodies are accurate.
“Well, go to the unofficial source and the private source because inside of my ministry, Mr. Speaker, I have the up-to-date information. What you want to get from an unofficial source and a private source, you can go and say that.”
Francis noted that he had “made certain statement in the previous Parliament”.
“Today, I wish to state that this matter of the Vermont Bridge, there is a provisional sum and that matter is under review by my Ministry. We have had some discussions on the subject matter and that is all I am prepared to say on the matter today. Because there are on-going decisions and in provisional sums, changes can be make whenever or wherever according to policy,” Francis said during the Oct. 22 meeting of Parliament.
Stephenson, speaking on the issue on radio last night, said that his research has found that EC$200,000 was allocated in the contract to buy a piece of land and construct a home for John and his family.
“But because he voted for the New Democratic Party, they didn’t want to give him that money at all,” Stephenson said.