Land acquisition dilemma

KUALA LUMPUR: It was a hot Sunday afternoon when a group of Taman Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI) residents met for lunch in a newly painted terrace house facing a busy highway.

Their conversation centred on the proposed Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) project that will soon change lives in a big way, regardless of whether their houses are acquired to make way for part of the planned Sungai Buloh-Kajang (SBK) line.

The residents along Jalan Medan Burhanuddin Helmi in TTDI say they are not opposing the MRT project or compulsory acquisition of their properties. They tell The Edge Financial Daily that they are open to having their property acquired on the condition that they be resettled within the TTDI area.

TTDI residents' fears of compulsory land acquisition were sparked in early February after finding notices, surreptitiously pinned on trees and lamp posts, notifying them that their properties could be acquired under the Land Acquisition Act 1960.

The same fears are spreading in many parts of the Klang Valley that the MRT will pass through. This brings to the forefront the acquisition of land for the project and its associated cost.

The entire proposed MRT project, comprising three lines, is expected to cost RM36.6 billion, making it the largest infrastructure project in Malaysia's history. But that figure excludes land acquisition, rolling stock and any potential rise in building material prices.

Taking into account the land acquisitions, the final bill is likely to be higher. Any sharp increase on top of the estimated RM36.6 billion will raise more doubts over the funding of the massive project.

The authorities have yet to reveal the cost of the proposed SBK line, the first route that is to be built.

Some quarters point out that the MRT, which is partly underground, will cut through densely populated areas in Kuala Lumpur's city centre as well as affluent residential areas such as Damansara Heights and TTDI. As such, land acquisition costs are unlikely to be low.

The Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) has countered by saying that part of the line will be underground, particularly in the city centre, and this will save on costs for land acquisition for that portion.

ERE Consulting Group Sdn Bhd, hired by SPAD to conduct a study on the environmental impact of the MRT project in the Klang Valley, says that for the Sungai Buloh to Semantan segment of the SBK line, TTDI is a "critical area" with 41 lots up for acquisition while the Maluri to Kajang segment will require the acquisition 65 lots in Kajang town.

ERE said the 51km SBK line will require the acquisition of 473 lots, of which 310 lots are located along the elevated sections of the track. The consultant anticipates 97ha of property may have to make way for the project.

The consultants identified four critical areas for potential land acquisition — TTDI, Taman Suntex in Cheras, and two villages on Malay reserve land, Kampung Sungai Sekamat and Kampung Sungai Balak.

Construction for the SBK line's underground portion, spanning Semantan to Cochrane, is expected to start in July, while construction for the elevated track is scheduled to begin in February next year.

Apart from the large financial cost, there is a human cost to the project as well, as affected residents are battling to keep their homes.

TTDI residents have emerged as the most vocal group to air their grouses on the SBK alignment, which calls for one TTDI station and elevated tracks that will trace the fringes of the leafy suburb.

Opinions are divided in the community, with some residents saying they have no need for the MRT in their peaceful neighbourhood while others have welcomed plans for improved public transport.

Two streets in TTDI, Medan Burhanuddin Helmi and Pinggir Zaaba, are facing potential acquisition and are likely to suffer the direct impact of the MRT project.

Both streets sit behind barrier walls that shield them from the bustling Lebuhraya Damansara-Puchong (LDP) and ongoing upgrading road works.

Medan Burhanuddin Helmi residents say they have had no peace for the last 15 years, with their street sitting on a narrow two-way lane precariously by the congested LDP.

Now, they are facing yet another challenge — plans for a MRT station near the One Utama shopping mall and office blocks — just across the highway, which they say will make their street "unliveable".

According to one retired man who declined to be named, he and his like-minded neighbours have written to SPAD to register their protest.

SPAD has since clarified in a press statement that TTDI houses may not need to be acquired simply because the properties are located beyond the 20m minimum buffer zone.

With compulsory acquisitions looming, affected home owners are concerned about the valuations attached to their properties and the inconvenience that comes with relocating, among other worries.

Datuk Mani Usilappan, former director-general of the Ministry of Finance's Valuation and Property Services Department, said fair compensation upon property acquisition is a constitutional right and the Land Acquisition Act is aimed at making the entire acquisition process "as soft as possible" on affected owners.

Article 13 of the Federal Constitution states that no person shall be deprived of property save in accordance with the law and that no law shall provide for the compulsory acquisition or use of property without adequate compensation.

"The whole idea is that the person affected should not be worse off because of the acquisition," said Mani, who is now in private practice.

Mani acknowledges that government valuations for properties have often been lower than private valuations, but says the differences left room for further discussions.  

"Property owners always have very optimistic views of their property if they have not tried to sell it yet. If they have placed their property out, they will know. Government valuations are not that far off from market value," Mani said.

Mani says the final award for an acquired property prices in the cost of relocating and inconvenience but does not take into account sentimental value for property.

Land acquisitions seem to be the immediate challenge for SPAD that could possibly inflate the MRT project's costs.

That said, perhaps the real challenge for the government is dealing with cost escalations due to rising raw material prices in the years to come.

A row of houses along Pinggir Zaaba. Medan Burhanuddin Helmi and Pinggir Zaaba are facing potential acquisition and are likely to suffer the direct impact of the MRT project. Photo: Suhaimi Yusuf of The Edge Malaysia

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