September 26, 2023

Should the presence of trees in an area be used as basis to deny applications for land titling in Baguio City?

This is the dilemma the city council wants the City Legal Office to resolve in relation to the concern brought to them by residents applying for land titles under the Residential Free Patent Law.

After hours of deliberating on the concern of residents of Lower Balacbac, Sto. Tomas Proper who cannot secure a clearance from the City Planning and Sustainable Development Office (CPSDO) to be used in their application for land titling, the council decided to ask the CLO to determine if the presence of trees in a land, which is not declared by any proclamation as a reservation or a forested area, can be used as basis in not issuing the clearance needed in the processing of land title applications.

The applicants from Lower Balacbac, headed by Roman Taguiling, told members of the council the CPSDO has been returning their application for a zoning clearance, one of the documents required in their application for a Residential Free Patent before the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, because the land they occupy are planted with trees and is therefore classified as a forested land under the city’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP).

The DENR requires applicants for land titling to first secure a clearance from the local government unit, in this case, the CPSDO before their applications can be processed.

The residents said they cannot comply with the requirement because their lands, which are planted with trees, could not be classified as residential areas. Others claim some properties with no forest covers are included in the prohibition.

Engr. Elias Aoanan of the CPSDO, who appeared before the council last week, said their sole basis in classifying lots subject for applications as forested lands is the result of a survey, aided by the use of Google maps that showed the parts of the city with canopy covers.

Councilor Betty Lourdes Tabanda said the CPSDO should review its guidelines because some of the residents of Lower Balacbac have titles even if their properties were covered with trees.

Aoanan said those titles were issued before the CLUP was amended in 2016.

Asked if there are technical descriptions of the forested areas in the barangay, Aoanan said they only relied on the presence of pine trees, as shown in the Google maps.

But he said the CPSDO is now establishing the digital twin of the city’s barangays that would provide a more accurate description of each barangay by showing the residential structures, including the tree covers in an area, to be used as basis in classifying whether an area is forested or not.

He also admitted that before the CLUP was enacted in 2016, no ground verification was conducted that would have helped the office determine the presence of houses covered by trees, but whose owners might have acquired vested rights.

Aoanan said then mayor Mauricio Domogan approved the CLUP subject to the condition that a ground verification be done to segregate the structures that were already issued titles from the coverage of the forested areas.

Councilors Peter Fianza and Benny Bomogao said if the CPSDO continues to interpret that a forested land is an area solely planted with pine trees, it might have an adverse impact on the city government’s regreening efforts as some residents might be discouraged to plant just so their lands will be spared from being classified as a forested area.

“We made an error in the approval of the CLUP (in 2016). Let us go back to the classification of lands in the city before the CLUP was amended,” Fianza said.

Bomogao added there is a problem on how the CPSDO interpreted the CLUP.

The council asked the CLO to resolve whether or not a vacant forested area, that was not delineated by any proclamation, can be spared from the application for land titling under Free Patent Law or under the Townsite Sales Application. – Jane B. Cadalig