SPECIAL FIFTEENTH DIVISION
[CA-G.R. SP No. 40950. March 26, 1997.]
E.M. RAMOS and SONS, INC., petitioner, vs. HON. RENATO C. CORONA, in his capacity as Deputy Executive Secretary and HON. ERNESTO D. GARILAO, Secretary of Agrarian Reform, respondents.
D E C I S I O N
GARCIA, J p:
Assailed and sought to be nullified in this petition for review with application for a temporary restraining order and/or writ of preliminary injunction are the decision of the Office of the President, acting through Deputy Executive Secretary Renato C. Corona, dated February 7, 1996 and its resolution dated May 14, 1996, in O.P. Case No. 5461, an appeal thereto interposed by herein petitioner E.M. Ramos and Sons, Inc., from an adverse order of the Secretary of Agrarian Reform, in an action to nullify the notices of acquisition of several hectares of land.
The first of the challenged issuances affirmed the order of the respondent Secretary of Agrarian Reform dated January 6, 1993, as reiterated in another order of October 28, 1993, which denied petitioner's request to nullify the notices of acquisition covering its property. The other challenged issuance denied petitioner's motion for reconsideration of the first.
At the core of the controversy are several parcels of unirrigated land (303.38545 hectares) which form part of a larger expanse with an area of 372 hectares situated at Barangay Langkaan, Dasmariñas, Cavite. Originally owned by the Manila Golf & Country Club, the property was acquired by the petitioner in 1965 for the purpose of developing the same into a residential subdivision known as "Traveller's Life Homes".
Sometime in 1971, the Municipal Council of Dasmariñas, Cavite, acting pursuant to Republic Act (R.A.) No. 2264, otherwise known as the "Local Autonomy Act", enacted Municipal Ordinance No. 1, hereinafter referred to as Ordinance No. 1, entitled "An Ordinance Providing Subdivision Regulation and Providing Penalties for Violation Thereof".
In May, 1972, petitioner E.M. Ramos and Sons, Inc., applied for an authority to convert and develop its aforementioned 372-hectare property into a residential subdivision, attaching to the application detailed development plans and development proposals from Bancom Development Corporation and San Miguel Corporation. Acting thereon, the Municipal Council of Dasmariñas, Cavite passed on July 9, 1972 Municipal Ordinance No. 29-A (Ordinance No. 29-A, for brevity), approving petitioner's application. Ordinance No. 29-A pertinently reads:
"Resolved, as it is hereby resolved, to approve the application for subdivision containing an area of Three Hundred Seventy-Two (372) Hectares situated in Barrios Bocal and Langkaan, named as Traveller's Life Homes.
Resolved that the Municipal Ordinance regarding subdivision regulations existing in this municipality shall be strictly followed by the subdivision".
Subsequently, the petitioner paid the fees, dues and licenses needing to proceed with property development.
It appears, however, that the actual implementation of the subdivision project suffered delay owing to the confluence of events. Among these was the fact that the property in question was then mortgaged to, and the titles thereto were in the possession of, the Overseas Bank of Manila, which during the period material was under liquidation.
On June 15, 1988, Republic Act No. 6657, otherwise known as the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law or CARL, took effect, ushering in a new process of land classification, acquisition and distribution.
On September 23, 1988, the Municipal Mayor of Dasmariñas, Cavite addressed a letter to the petitioner, stating in part, as follows:
"In reply to your letter of June 2, 1988, we wish to clarify that the Municipality of Dasmariñas, Cavite, has approved the development of your property situated in Barrios Bukal and Langkaan, Dasmariñas, Cavite, with total area of 372 hectares, more or less, into residential, industrial, commercial and golf course project.
This conversion conforms with the approved Development Plan of the Municipality of Dasmariñas, Cavite".
Then came the Aquino government's plan to convert the tenanted neighboring property of the National Development Company (NDC) into an industrial estate to be managed through a joint venture scheme by NDC and the Marubeni Corporation. Part of the overall conversion package called for providing the tenant-farmers, opting to remain at the NDC property, with three (3) hectares each. However, the size of the NDC property turned out to be insufficient for both the demands of the proposed industrial project as well as the government's commitment to the tenant-farmers. To address this commitment, the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) was thus tasked with acquiring additional lands from the nearby areas. The DAR earmarked for this purpose the subject property of the petitioner.
On August 29, 1990, then DAR Secretary Benjamin Leong sent out the first of four batches of notices of acquisition, each of which drew protest from the petitioner. All told, these notices covered 303.38545 hectares of land situated at Barangay Langkaan, Dasmariñas, Cavite owned by the petitioner.
In the meantime, the petitioner filed with the Department of Agrarian Reform Adjudication Board (DARAB), Region IV, Pasig, Metro Manila, separate petitions to nullify the first three sets of the above notices. Collectively docketed as DARAB Case No. IV-Ca-0084-92, these petitions were subsequently referred to the Office of the Regional Director, Region IV, which had jurisdiction thereon. In his referral action, the Provincial Agrarian Adjudicator directed the DAR Region IV, through its Operations Division, to conduct a hearing and/or investigation to determine whether or not the subject property is covered by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) and, if not, to cancel the notices of acquisition.
Forthwith, the DAR regional office conducted an on-site inspection of the subject property.
In the course of the hearing, during which petitioner offered Exhibits "A" to "UU-2" as documentary evidence, petitioner received another set of notices of acquisition. As to be expected, petitioner again protested.
On August 28, 1992, the Legal Division of DAR, Region IV, through Hearing Officer Victor Baguilat, rendered a decision declaring as null and void all the notices of acquisitions, observing that the property covered thereby is, pursuant to Department of Justice (DOJ) Opinion N. 44, series of 1990, exempt from CARP. The dispositive portion of the decision reads, as follows:
"WHEREFORE, in the light of the foregoing . . ., considering that the notices of acquisition dated August 29, 1990 relative to the 39 hectares partly covered by Transfer Certificate of Title No. T-19298; notices of acquisition all dated April 3, 1991 relative to the 131.41975 hectares partly covered by Transfer Certificates of Title Nos. . . .; notices of acquisition all dated August 28, 1991 relative to the 56.9201 hectares covered by Transfer Certificates of Title Nos. . . .; and notices of acquisition all dated May 15, 1992 relative to the 76.0456 covered by Transfer Certificates of Title Nos. . . ., all located at Barangay Langkaan, Dasmariñas, Cavite and owned by petitioner E.M. RAMOS and SONS, INC. are null and void on the ground that the subject properties are exempted from CARP coverage pursuant to DOJ Opinion No. 44, Series of 1990, therefore, the aforesaid notices of acquisition be canceled and revoked".
The DOJ Opinion adverted to, rendered by then Justice Secretary Franklin Drilon, clarified that lands already converted to non-agricultural uses before June 15, 1988 were no longer covered by CARP.
On September 3, 1992, the Region IV DAR Regional Director motu propio elevated the case to the Office of the Agrarian Reform Secretary, it being his view that Hearing Officer Baguilat's decision ran contrary to the department's official position "to pursue the coverage of the same properties and its (sic) eventual distribution to qualified beneficiaries particularly the Langkaan farmers in fulfillment of the commitment of the government to deliver to them the balance of thirty-nine hectares . . .".
On January 6, 1993, the herein respondent DAR Secretary Ernesto Garilao issued an order, the decretal portion of which partly reads:
"WHEREFORE, in the interest of law and justice, an order is hereby rendered:
1. Affirming the Notices of Acquisition dated August 29, 1990, April 3, 1991, August 28, 1991 and May 15, 1992 covering 303.38545 hectares of the property owned by the E.M RAMOS & SONS, INC., located at Barangay Langkaan, Dasmariñas, Cavite . . .;
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3. Directing the DAR field officials concerned to pursue the coverage under RA 6657 of the properties of E.M. Ramos & Sons, Inc. for which subject Notices of Acquisition had been issued.
Its motion for reconsideration of the aforesaid order having been denied by the same respondent in his subsequent order of January 6, 1993, petitioner appealed to the Office of the President where the recourse was docketed as O.P. Case No. 5461.
On February 7, 1996, the Office of the President, through herein respondent Deputy Executive Secretary Renato Corona, rendered the herein assailed decision (Annex "A", Petition), dismissing petitioner's appeal on the strength of the following observations:
"To recapitulate, this Office holds that petitioner-appellant's property has remained AGRICULTURAL in classification and therefore falls within the coverage of the CARP, on the basis of the following:
1. Petitioner-appellant failed to comply with the mandatory requirements and conditions of Municipal Ordinance Nos. 1 and 29-A, specifically, among others, the need for approval of the National Planning Commission through the Highway District Engineer, and the Bureau of Lands before final submission to the Municipal Council and Municipal Mayor;
2. Petitioner-appellant failed to comply with Administrative Order No. 152, dated December 16, 1968, and
3. The certification of the Human Settlements Regulatory Commission (HSRC) in 1981 and the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLRB) in 1992 that the property of petitioner-appellant is agricultural".
Undaunted, petitioner interposed a motion for reconsideration, followed later by another motion whereunder it invited attention to legal doctrines involving land conversion recently enunciated by no less than the Office of the President itself.
On May 14, 1996, the same respondent came out with his second challenged issuance denying the petitioner's aforementioned motion for reconsideration (Annex "B", Petition).
Hence, this recourse, predicated on seven (7) reasons framed by way of assignment of errors.
In a Resolution promulgated on July 3, 1996, this Court required the respondent DAR Secretary to comment on the petition within the period fixed therein and to show cause within the same time frame why a writ of preliminary injunction should not issue. In the same resolution, the Court, if only to prevent the issues raised in the petition from becoming moot and academic pending consideration of the application for a writ of preliminary injunction, issued a temporary restraining order enjoining both respondents from implementing the challenged decision and resolution in O.P. Case No. 5461, until further orders.
On August 27, 1996, the petitioner filed a verified "URGENT MOTION TO RESOLVE APPLICATION FOR WRIT OF PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION AND SUBMIT CASE FOR RESOLUTION", thereunder alleging that, despite the issuance by this Court of the temporary restraining order, the DAR, through its Regional Director, Region IV, gave instructions to the Cavite Provincial Agrarian Reform Office "to proceed with the coverage and distribution of the property registered in the name of [the petitioner]", adding that it (petitioner) "has received information that certain unscrupulous individuals are offering the subject property or portions thereof to third persons in anticipation that the same will now be distributed" (Rollo, pp. 101-102).
Acting on this motion, the Court, noting that the respondent Secretary of Agrarian Reform, despite his receipt on July 8, 1996 of Our resolution of July 3, 1966, has so far not filed his comment on the petition as required, let alone showed cause why an injunctive writ should not be issued, promulgated on September 17, 1996 another Resolution granting the prayer for issuance of a writ of preliminary injunction and directing the issuance of the writ upon petitioner's posting of a bond in the sum of P500,000.00. The required bond having been posted, the desired writ was actually issued on September 30, 1996.
On September 20, 1996, the respondent Secretary of Agrarian Reform filed an ex parte motion for leave to file and for admission of late compliance, attaching therewith his comment on the petition. A motion for reconsideration of the resolution granting the writ of preliminary injunction followed.
On January 17, 1997, the Buklod ng Magbubukid sa Lupang Ramos, Inc. (Buklod, for brevity), in behalf of the alleged farmers-beneficiaries of the Ramos-property, intervened without leave of court by filing "MANIFESTATION AND OMNIBUS MOTION". There, Buklod sought the dissolution of the injunction issued by this Court, invoking, as did the respondent Agrarian Reform Secretary, Section 55 of the CARL. Additionally, it prayed for the dismissal of the instant petition for review, it being its submission that the remedy pursued the petitioner is improper. With undisguised aplomb, Buklod states that petitioner should have sought recourse from the Supreme Court via a petition for certiorari.
To the first motion of the respondent DAR Secretary, the petitioner interposed an opposition, with a plea to expunge the said motion, together with the comment attached thereto. To the same respondent's motion for reconsideration of the resolution ordering the issuance of a writ of preliminary injunction, petitioner submitted its comment.
On the other hand, the petitioner, as directed by this Court in its resolution of February 6, 1997, submitted on February 18, 1997 a comment and opposition to the MANIFESTATION AND OMNIBUS MOTION of would-be-intervenor Buklod.
The respondent DAR Secretary, attributes his failure to seasonably submit his comment on the petition to oversight, if not negligence, of the department's counsel. This notwithstanding, the Court, in the higher interest of justice, is inclined to admit, as it hereby admits, the belatedly-filed comment on the petition.
For the same reason, we are inclined to allow, as we hereby allow Buklod to intervene, its participation herein not being in any way prejudicial to the interests of the original parties, nor will such intervention change the factual legal complexion of the case.
The untenable contention of Buklod as to the propriety of the recourse presently pursued by the petitioner need not occupy us long. Under Supreme Court Revised Administrative Circular No. 1-95, dated May 16, 1995, appeals from judgments or final orders of the Office of the President or the DAR under the CARL shall be taken to the Court of Appeals, through a verified petition for review (Sec. 5). Appeals allowed under the above circular may raise questions of facts, of law, or mixed questions of facts and law (Sec. 3).
Now, to the substantive aspect of the petition.
In this recourse, petitioner submits that the respondent Deputy Executive Secretary erred in —
1. holding that the petitioner failed to comply with the mandatory requirements and conditions of Municipal Ordinance Nos. 1 and 29-A, specifically among others, the need for approval of the National Planning Commission through the Highway District Engineer, and the Bureau of Lands before final submission to the Municipal Council and Mayor and that accordingly no valid conversion took place;
2. interpreting Administrative Order No. 152, dated December 16, 1968 by holding that the petitioner failed to comply with the said issuance and that accordingly no valid conversion of the property took place;
3. upholding the certification of the Human Settlements Regulatory Commission and the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLRB) that the property is agricultural rather than upholding the conversion of the property through legislative fiat;
4. holding that the petitioner did not comply with DAR Memorandum Circular 11-79, hence no valid conversion of the property took place;
5. ruling that the case of Natalia Realty, Inc. vs. Department of Agriculture, 225 SCRA 278, did not apply to the property of the petitioner which would exempt the petitioner from CARP coverage;
6. not holding that the subject parcels of land of the petitioner became the target of the CARP only due to the commitment of the government to NDC farmer; and
7. not applying its previous applicable rulings and decisions rendered in similar cases.
One underlying theme pervades petitioner's arguments-in-chief and this to us presents itself as the issue to which all others must yield. We refer to the question of whether or not the lands in dispute were already effectively converted into, and/or classified as, residential before the effectivity of the CARL, thus exempting them from the coverage of the law.
Petitioner contends in the main that the property in question has long been converted into a residential subdivision and duly approved as such by the Municipal Council of Dasmariñas, Cavite, and that it (petitioner) has taken concrete steps toward the development thereof into a subdivision. This conversion, petitioner further maintains, has attained the character of finality and permanency when the DAR, in disregard of the ruling in Natalia Realty, Inc. vs. DAR, 225 SCRA, 278, attempted to bring the property within the coverage of CARL. The lands in question, the petitioner adds, have become unsuitable for agricultural purposes, being within the front line of the CALABARZON (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon) region.
For his part, the respondent DAR Secretary submits that the zoning ordinance of Dasmariñas, Cavite remained purely for local consumption, devoid, without the intervention of national agencies, of conversion effect; that the law which authorized the then municipal councils to enact zoning ordinances prescribed certain conditions which were not complied with in this case; that the entire territory of CALABARZON has not been withdrawn from agricultural use; and, that the ruling in the Natalia Realty case has no application in the case at bench.
We find merit in the petition.
From our appreciation of the records before us, it appears clear to this Court that the disputed property, by the interplay of Ordinance No. 1 and Ordinance No. 29-A, has already been converted and classified as residential long before the CARL came into effect on June 15, 1988. In fact, such classification and conversion in July 1972 even preceded the issuance on October 21, 1972 of the tenants' Emancipation Decree (P.D. No. 27), and necessarily All circulars and guidelines implementing the same.
Ordinance No. 1, like Ordinance 29-A, has been described by the respondent Deputy Executive Secretary as a "valid legislative measure". Ordinance No. 1 was enacted pursuant to the then governing Local Autonomy Act (R.A. No. 2264), Section 3 of which pertinently provides:
"Sec. 3. Additional powers of provincial boards, municipal boards or city councils and municipal and regularly organized municipal districts councils. —
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Power to adopt zoning and planning ordinances. — Any provision of law to the contrary notwithstanding, Municipal Boards or City Councils in cities and Municipal Councils in municipalities are hereby authorized to adopt zoning and subdivision ordinances or regulations for their respective cities and municipalities subject the approval of the City Mayor or Municipal Mayor, or as the case may be, Cities and Municipalities may, however, consult the National Planning Commission on matters to planning and zoning".
According to the respondent Deputy Executive Secretary, the Municipal Council of Dasmariñas, Cavite approved, through Ordinance No. 29-A, the application of the petitioner to subdivide the 372-hectare property, provided that existing regulations are strictly complied with. These regulations, the same respondent added, referred "obviously to none other than the requirements of its Municipal Ordinance No. 1" which provided that —
"all subdivision shall conform to the Approved General Plan, or section thereof, and the building and zoning ordinance or regulation in force in the area where the subdivision is situated" (Sec. 2, ART. III)
"As essential requirement before a subdivision is accepted for verification by the Bureau of Lands, the final plat of the scheme of the subdivision must comply with the provisions of this Ordinance. Application for plat approval shall be submitted to the Municipal Mayor and shall be forwarded to the National Planning Commission through the District Highway Engineer for comments and/or recommendation before action is taken by the Municipal Council. . . ." (Sec. 16 [a], Art. IV).
The respondent Deputy Executive Secretary struck down the claimed conversion of the petitioner's 372-hectare property as a nullity, for, in his own words:
"Despite painstaking search, this Office was unable to find in the records any copy of an approved General Plan or zoning ordinance for Dasmariñas, Cavite. And none was ever presented by petitioner-appellant despite the fact that it would have greatly bolstered its legal position.
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On the other hand, Sec. 16 [a], Article IV of the same ordinance listed the following essential requirements for approval of a subdivision plan: the recommendation of the National Planning Commission through the Highway District Engineer and verification by the Bureau of Lands. Compliance with these requirements constituted a condition precedent before approval would be given by the Municipal Council and the Municipal Mayor. Again, there is nothing in the records to show that these essential requirements were ever complied with. . . .
It is the petitioner-appellant's position that the enactment of Municipal Ordinance No. 29-A (the approval ordinance) was the clear, convincing and unassailable proof that its property had been permanently removed from its agricultural status and converted to non-agricultural. We do not think so. Municipal Ordinance Nos. 1 and 29-A both contained requirements and conditions . . . that petitioner-appellant should have complied with but did not. . . .
Stated otherwise, petitioner-appellant's theory would be correct had it complied with all the requirements and conditions not only of Municipal Ordinance No. 1, but also Municipal Ordinance 29-A. Considering, however, that petitioner-appellant failed to comply . . ., there can be no reasonable and logical conclusions other than valid conversion ever took place" (Emphasis omitted).
We are unable to lend concurrence to the above disposition.
For one, whether or not the Municipality of Dasmariñas, Cavite had in place in the early seventies a general subdivision plan is to us of no moment. The absence of such general plan at that time cannot be taken, for the nonce, against the petitioner. To our mind, the more weighty consideration is the accomplished fact that the municipality, conformably with its statutory-conferred local autonomy, had passed a subdivision measure, i.e., Ordinance No. 1, and had approved in line thereto, through the medium of Ordinance No. 29-A, petitioner's application for subdivision, or with like effect approved the conversion/classification of the lands in dispute as residential. Significantly, the Municipal Mayor of Dasmariñas, Cavite, in his letter of September 23, 1988 to petitioner, clarified that such conversion conforms with the approved development plan of the municipality.
For another, the requirement prescribed by the cited Section 16 [a] of Ordinance No. 1 relates approval the in the first instance by the National Planning Commission of the final plat of the scheme of the subdivision, not the conversion from agricultural to residential itself. As petitioner aptly puts it:
". . . the final plat or final plan, map or chart of the subdivision is not a condition sine qua non for the conversion . . . as the conversion was already done by the Municipal Council of Dasmariñas, Cavite, Municipal Ordinance No. 29-A merely required that the final plat, or final plan . . . of the subdivision be done in conformity with Municipal Ordinance No. 1, the same to be followed by the subdivision itself. Petitioner therefore did not have to undertake the immediate actual development of the subject parcel of lands as the same had already been converted and declared residential by law. . . ." (Petition, pp. 17 and 18).
Petitioner's pose has the merit of logic. As may be noted, Ordinance No. 29-A contained two (2) resolutory portions, each inter-related to, but nonetheless independent of, the other. The first resolution, reading —
"Resolved, as it is hereby resolved, to approve the application for subdivision containing an area of Three Hundred Seventy-Two (372) Hectares situated in Barrios Bocal and Langkaan, named as Travellers Life Homes"
approved the application for subdivision or the conversion of the 372-hectares area into residential, while the second, reading —
"Resolved that the Municipal Ordinance regarding subdivision regulations existing in this municipality shall be strictly followed by the subdivision"
provides that the subdivision owner/developer shall follow subdivision regulations. It will be noted further that the second resolution already referred to the petitioner's property as "subdivision", suggesting that the Municipal Council already considered as of that moment petitioner's area to be for residential use.
Another requirement which petitioner allegedly failed to comply with is found in Administrative Order (A.O.) No. 152, series of 1968, which pertinently provides —
"1. All Municipal Boards or City Councils, and all Municipal Councils in cities and municipalities in which a subdivision ordinance is in force, shall submit three copies of every proposed subdivision plan for which approval is sought together with the subdivision ordinance, to the National Planning Commission for comment and recommendation".
This Court is at a loss to understand how petitioner could be expected to heed a directive addressed to local government legislative bodies. From a perusal of the title of A.O. No. 152, it is at once obvious from whom it exacts compliance with its command, thus: "REQUIRING THE MUNICIPAL BOARDS OR CITY COUNCILS AND MUNICIPAL COUNCILS TO SUBMIT PROPOSED ORDINANCES AND SUBDIVISION PLANS TO THE NATIONAL PLANNING COMMISSION FOR COMMENT AND RECOMMENDATION, BEFORE TAKING ACTION ON THE SAME, AND TO FORWARD A COPY OF THEIR APPROVED SUBDIVISION ORDINANCES TO THE SAID COMMISSION".
To be sure, petitioner cannot be made to bear the consequences for the non-compliance, if this be the case, by the Municipal Council of Dasmariñas, Cavite with what A.O. 152 required. A converse proposition would be antithetical to the sporting idea of fair play.
Foregoing considered, this Court holds that everything needed to validly effect the conversion of the disputed area to residential had been accomplished. The only conceivable step yet to be taken relates to the obtention of a conversion order from the DAR, or its predecessor, the Ministry of Agrarian Reform (MAR) under its rather intricate procedure established under Memorandum Circular No. 11-79. But then, this omission can hardly prejudice the petitioner for the DAR/MAR guidelines were promulgated only in 1979, at which time the conversion of the petitioner's property was already a fait accompli.
Like the conversion procedure set up under Memorandum Circular No. 11-79, the revised methodology under the CARL cannot also be made to apply retroactively to lands duly converted/classified as residential under the aegis of the Local Autonomy Act. For, as a rule, a statute is not intended to affect transactions which occurred before it becomes operational (Tolentino, COMMENTARIES AND JURISPRUDENCE ON THE CIVIL CODE, Vol. I, 1983 ed., p. 23). And as the landmark case of Natalia Realty, Inc. vs. Department of Agrarian Reform, 225 SCRA 278, teaches:
"Indeed, lands not devoted to agricultural activity are outside the coverage of CARL, These include lands previously converted to non-agricultural uses prior to the effectivity of CARL by government agencies other than respondent DAR . . .
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Since the NATALIA lands were converted prior to 15 June 1988, respondent DAR is bound by such conversion. It was therefore error to include the underdeveloped portions . . . within the coverage of CARL".
It maybe so, as the assailed decision stated, that in Natalia the lands therein involved received a locational clearance from the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLRB, formerly the Human Settlement Regulatory Commission (HSRC), as residential or commercial, a factor the petitioner cannot assert in Its favor. This dissimilarity, however, hardly provides a compelling justification not to apply the lessons of Natalia. This is because the property involved in this case, unlike that in Natalia, underwent classification/conversion before the creation on May 13, 1976 of the HSRC, then known as the Human Settlements Regulatory Commission (P.D. No. 933). Furthermore, what is recognized as the HSRC's authority to classify and to approve subdivisions and comprehensive land use development plans of local governments devolved on that agency only upon its reorganization on February 7, 1981, with the issuance of Executive Order No. 648 known as the Charter of the Human Settlements Regulatory Commission. Section 5 of the same executive order invested the HSRC with the above classifying and approving authority. In fine, the property of the petitioner went into the process of conversion at the time when the intervention thereon of the HSRC, which was even then non-existent, was unnecessary. Shortly before the creation of the HSRC, it would appear that to provincial, city, or municipal councils/boards, as the case may be, belong the prerogative, albeit perhaps not exclusive, to classify private lands within their respective territorial jurisdiction and approve their conversion from agricultural to residential or other non-agricultural uses. To paraphrase the holding in Patalinghug vs. Court of Appeals, 229 SCRA 554, once a local government has, pursuant to its police power, reclassified an area as residential, that determination ought to prevail and must be respected.
The respondent DAR Secretary's submission regarding a conversion being devoid of effect unless with the clearance of national agencies, cannot be accorded full cogency. For, if his thesis were to be followed and stretched to its logical end, then practically all erstwhile agricultural lands developed into existing subdivisions, pursuant to local government's subdivision ordinances, but without HSRC/HLRB or DAR clearance would still be subject to CARL. For its sheer absurdity, the DAR submission cannot be accepted.
It is worthy to note that the CARL defines "agricultural lands" as "lands devoted to agricultural activity . . . and not classified as mineral, forest, residential, commercial or industrial lands" (Sec. 3 [c]). Guided by this definition, it is clear that petitioner's area does not fall under the category of agricultural lands. For, let alone the reality that the property is not devoted to some agricultural activity, being in fact unirrigated, and, as implied in the decision of DAR Hearing Officer Victor Baguilat, without duly instituted tenants, the same had been effectively classified as residential. The bare circumstance of its not being actually developed as subdivision or that it is underdeveloped would not alter the conclusion. For, according to Natalia, what actually determines the applicability of the CARL to a given piece of land is its previous classification and not its current use or stages of development as non-agricultural property.
As a pragmatic consideration, the disputed area, in terms of its location in relation to existing commercial/industrial sites and its major economic use, is more suitable for purposes other than agriculture. In this connection, this Court notes that the property is situated at the heart of the CALABARZON, and, as Annex "C" of the petition demonstrates, lies adjacent to huge industrial/commercial complexes. The San Miguel-Monterey meat plant, the NDC-Marubeni complex and the Reynolds Aluminum plant may be mentioned. For Sure, the Sangguniang Panlalawigan of Cavite, obviously cognizant of the economic potential of certain areas in the Municipality of Dasmariñas has, by Resolution No. 105, series of 1988, declared defined tracts of lands in the Municipality of Dasmariñas as "industrial-residential-institutional mix".
In the light of the foregoing disquisition, the remaining assertions of the petitioner no longer require extended discussion. Suffice it to state with regard to its sixth assignment of error that the government indeed tapped the subject property in response to its commitment to farmers displaced by the NDC-Marubeni project aforementioned. The challenged decision admits as much, although only 39 hectares of the entire area were earmarked for that purpose.
Anent the seventh assignment of error, petitioner assails the challenged issuances for not being in accord with the decision in O.P. Case No. 96-C-6624 entitled, "IN RE: LAND USE CONVERSION APPLICATION FOR AGRO-INDUSTRIAL PURPOSE OF A PARCEL OF LAND LOCATED AT SAN VICENTE, SUMILAO, BUKIDNON. NQSR MANAGEMENT AND DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION AND/OR BUKIDNON AGRO-INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT ASSOCIATION, Applicant", an appeal from the order of the DAR denying an application for conversion despite the approval thereof by the Provincial Board of Bukidnon. In reversing the action of the DAR, the Office of the President, through the Executive Secretary, in its decision dated March 29, 1996, ratiocinated as follows:
"Nor can procedural lapses in the manner of identifying/reclassifying the subject property for agro-industrial purposes be allowed to defeat the very purpose of the law granting autonomy to local government units in the management of their local affairs. Stated more simply, the language of Section 20 of R.A. No. 7160, [the Local Government Code of 1991] supra is clear and affords no room for any other interpretation. By unequivocal legal mandate, it grants local government units autonomy in their local affairs including the power to convert portions of their agricultural lands and provide for the manner of their utilization and disposition . . ." (Emphasis added).
While the foregoing disposition truly argues for the petitioner's cause, the respondent Deputy Executive Secretary seemed not to have taken stock thereof, although judging from the respective dates of rendition, the decision in O.P. Case No. 96-C-6424 followed the first, but preceded the second challenged issuances herein.
To sum up, this Court rules and so holds that the 372-hectare property of the petitioner had been properly classified as and converted into residential before the effectivity of the CARL. Accordingly, and consistent with the ruling in Natalia and DOJ Opinion No. 44, supra, the same falls beyond the coverage of the CARP, as the Hearing Officer of the DAR, Region IV correctly concluded. Necessarily, the notices of acquisition issued by the DAR stand without legal basis and deserve to be nullified. With the view we take of this case, there is no other way to afford the petitioner its just due.
As a final consideration, we will address the respondent DAR Secretary's and Buklod's joint concern regarding the propriety of the preliminary injunction issued in this case. They alleged that the issuance is violative of Section 55 of the CARL which reads:
"SEC. 55. No Restraining Order or Preliminary Injunction. — No Court in the Philippines shall have jurisdiction to issue any restraining order or writ of preliminary injunction against the PARC or any of its duly authorized or designated agencies in any case, dispute, controversy arising from, necessary to, or in connection with the application, implementation, enforcement, or interpretation of this Act and other pertinent laws on agrarian reform". (Emphasis added).
As will be noted, the aforeguoted section specifically mentions the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) of which the DAR Secretary is the Vice Chairman, or any of its duly designated agencies as protected from an injunctive action of any court. These agencies include the PARC Executive Committee, the PARC Secretariat, which the DAR Secretary heads, and, on the local level, the different Agrarian Reform Action Committees (Secs. 41 to 45, R.A. 6657).
From the records, there is not indication that the respondent Agrarian Reform Secretary acted vis-a-vis the present controversy for, or as an agency of, the PARC. Hence, he cannot rightfully invoke Section 55 of the CARL and avail himself of the protective mantle afforded by that provision. The PARC, it bears to stress, is a policy-formulating and coordinating body (Sec. 18, E.O. 229, July 22, 1987) without express adjudicatory mandate, unlike the DAR Secretary who, as department head, is "vested with primary jurisdiction to determine and adjudicate agrarian reform matters and shall have exclusive jurisdiction over all matters involving the implementation of agrarian reform" (Sec. 50, R.A. 6657). Thus, it is easy to accept the proposition that the respondent Agrarian Reform Secretary issued his challenged orders in the exercise of his quasi-judicial power as department head.
WHEREFORE, the instant petition for review is hereby GRANTED. Accordingly, the challenged decision dated February 7, 1996 and the resolution of May 14, 1996 of the President in O.P. Case No. 5461 are hereby NULLIFIED VACATED and SET ASIDE, and the notices of acquisition issued by the Department of Agrarian Reform covering the 372-hectare property of the petitioner at Barangay Langkaan, Dasmariñas, Cavite declared VOID.
The writ of preliminary injunction issued by this Court on September 30, 1996 is hereby made permanent.
Labitoria and * Agcaoili, JJ., concur.