Power of expropriation for public use
It is not just a gateway. It’s a destination.” The Mactan-Cebu International Airport (MCIA) lives up to its adage as its Terminal 2 began commercial operations on July 1.
Multinational professional services firm Arup, which collaborated with Integrated Design Associates Ltd. in designing MCIA, described Terminal 2 as a “three-storey building of 65,500 sqm, featuring an 18-meter tall arched timber roof” which took its cue from “the vernacular architecture of the tropics.”
According to news reports, MCIA’s check-in luggage is inspected through a high-speed baggage handling system “equipped with a four-level inline screening technology” that does away with luggage x-rays at the entrance as practiced in most international airports. Its washrooms are enclosed in lush Italian moss walls, which “[help] stabilize humidity and improve air quality,” while a diverse set of establishments and service centers adorn its common areas.
Before it became an oasis, MCIA was then Mactan International Airport, which operated alongside the Lahug Airport.
In 1963, the Philippine government instituted expropriation proceedings against owners of adjacent lands for the expansion of Lahug Airport. In accordance with the expropriation, the subject lands were registered in the government’s name.
In her Memorandum dated November 29, 1989, however, former President Corazon C. Aquino directed the transfer of operations of the Lahug Airport to the Mactan International Airport, and the closure of Lahug Airport after such transfer. Thus, the projected improvement and expansion plan of the Lahug Airport never materialized.
Meanwhile, Republic Act No. 6958 was enacted, creating the Mactan-Cebu International Airport Authority (MCIAA), which undertook the economical, efficient, and effective control, management, and supervision of both airports and other airports as may be established by the Province of Cebu.
Pursuant to this objective, said law authorized the MCIAA to, among others, acquire, purchase, own, administer, lease, mortgage, sell, or otherwise dispose of any land, building, airport facilities, or properties to the national government.
Apolonio Gopuco Jr., one of the owners of the expropriated lands, filed a complaint for recovery of ownership thereof against Air Transportation Office (ATO), MCIAA’s predecessor, and the MCIAA. In filing the said complaint, he alleged that by virtue of the closure of Lahug Airport, the original purpose for the expropriation of his land had ceased, and the title thereto should revert to him.
The trial court dismissed his complaint, declaring, among others, that the fact of abandonment or closure of Lahug Airport did not by itself result in the reversion of the land back to Gopuco.
Upon appeal, the Court of Appeals had reversed and set aside the trial court’s decision. It held that should public use be abandoned, then the expropriated property should revert back to its former owner.
ATO and MCIAA thereafter filed with the Supreme Court a petition in the case entitled, “Air Transportation Office and Mactan-Cebu International Airport Authority v. Apolonio Gopuco, Jr.” to assail the Court of Appeals’ decision.
In granting ATO and MCIAA’s petition, the Supreme Court declared that whether expropriated land would revert to its former owner upon abandonment of the particular public use depends on the character of the title acquired by the expropriator, whether it be a state, a province, a municipality, or a corporation, which has the right to acquire the property.
Thus, if the land were expropriated for a public purpose with the condition that when the purpose is ended or abandoned, the property shall return to its former owner, he can reacquire said land.
Meanwhile, when land has been acquired for public use in fee simple, unconditionally, either by the exercise of eminent domain or by purchase, the former owner does not retain any right to the land, even if the public use may be abandoned or the land may be devoted to a different use, without any impairment of the estate or the title acquired, or any reversion to the former owner.
In this case, the order of expropriation is one among the many orders issued in the expropriation proceedings for the expansion of Lahug Airport.
Said orders are clear and unequivocal in granting the title of subject land to the government, and did not impose any condition to the effect that the former owners have the right to repurchase said land if the purpose for expropriation ended or abandoned.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in this case merely highlights the government’s inherent power of eminent domain as “the highest and most exact idea of property, [which] remains in the government… [which has] the right to resume the possession of the property whenever the public interest so requires it.”
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