Fishermen’s coop beats Musa and Hotchandani’s Brown Sugar in court

The over 500 fishermen of National Fishermen Producers Cooperative Society Ltd., located on Angel Lane, Belize City, scored a major victory in the Supreme Court on Friday over Brown Sugar Market Place, a tourism development owned by two influential Belize City businessmen, Edward “Billy” Musa and Bob Hotchandani.

Justice Samuel Awich ruled that Brown Sugar could not build a pier abutting the premises of the cooperative, and had to remove the 22 concrete piles erected in October 2006 in front of the cooperative’s wharf within 30 days.

Justice Awich said that what had been done by Brown Sugar was “straightforward trespass,” and the cooperative is entitled to relief, no matter how slight it may be.

Brown Sugar Market Place has two lots along the Haulover Creek - #754, where its water taxi terminal is currently located, and lot #756, where a parking lot is located on the North Front Street side. In between is lot #755, upon which sits the fishermen’s cooperative.

Brown Sugar Market Place’s intent was to build a boardwalk, pier and gazebos, extending from one of its property to the next, and abutting the property of the fishermen’s cooperative, which lies between its two lots.

The company said that the project was not its brainchild but a project of the Belize City Council, and they were merely financing that portion of it. Justice Awich noted that the endeavor envisions a boardwalk from the Customs Free Zone area, moving west along the Fort Street Tourism Village, in front of the defendant’s property, to the Swing Bridge, and then running along the estuary and then the sea, ending in front of the House of Culture.

The judge invoked a mandatory injunction on the Brown Sugar project and ruled that Brown Sugar should pay the cooperative special damages of $2,000 to repair its wharf, allegedly damaged by the company.

The National Fishermen Producers Cooperative Society, formed in April 1966, had claimed $142,000 in lost revenues, because it claimed that the existence of the 22 piles forced fishermen to deliver their produce elsewhere. However, the judge ruled that the company would only be entitled to profits, not revenues. He instructed the parties to discuss settlement, but if they fail to arrive at a resolution on the amount that should be paid in lost profits to the cooperative, the court will issue a directive.

Brown Sugar was intending to build a boardwalk, with two paths extending “for business to the public.” Director Bob Hotchandani told the court that they had gotten all the required permissions to proceed from the Belize City Council, the Port Authority and the Ministry of Natural Resources.

Hotchandani asserted that while he did not require permission from the cooperative – on the understanding that the river bed is national lands and not the cooperative’s private property – he informed the cooperative as “good neighbors.”

The cooperative, however, asserted that it does hold riparian rights and insisted that Brown Sugar cannot be allowed, without its consent, to build a pier in front of its property, where fishermen land their produce.

The cooperative contended before the court that not only did the project drive away business; but the piles also damaged the boats of fishermen, which banged into the concrete poles when the seas were rough.

When the case was initially filed for an injunction, the court granted it on an interim basis. That injunction was solidified on Friday, when Justice Awich ruled that the piles must be removed. He also awarded the cooperative legal costs.

The cooperative was represented by Barrow & Williams, while Brown Sugar was represented by Samira Musa-Pott & Co.

Brown Sugar maintained that the project would not have caused any interference with the cooperative’s business but would, in their view, have enhanced their rights.

Brown Sugar filed a counterclaim against the fishermen’s cooperative for $227,500, saying that it should pay for the losses incurred because of the delay in the project. However, the judge said that Brown Sugar was not entitled to that payment, since in his view the cooperative does have riparian rights and its consent was in fact needed to have the abutting Brown Sugar pier built adjacent to its property.

Hotchandani had claimed a public right of navigation in the estuary. The judge, looking back at the case of Mike Feinstein for the Belize Tourism Village, where a similar dispute was ventilated, told Brown Sugar that it has to use its own land to access the sea or river.

He noted that the development would have caused much more traffic in front of the cooperative’s property. The public right of navigation, said the judge, does not include landing on a land owned by another and erecting permanent structures there.