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A high court on Thursday overturned a lower court ruling that ordered a former Okinawa governor to return about 328 million yen to prefectural coffers for authorizing development projects in an area inhabited by endangered birds.

The Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court acknowledged an “error” in procedures taken by the prefectural government for disbursing funds to the projects, but noted their necessity in terms of public utility.

Seventeen Okinawa residents had argued that the construction of roads and development of farmland harmed the habitats of rare species, including the Okinawa woodpecker and flightless Okinawa rail, in a mountainous region of northern Okinawa.

The plaintiffs, members of an Okinawa conservation group, had sought 370 million yen in damages for the projects in the Yambaru woodland area. They plan to appeal to the Supreme Court.

In June last year, the Naha District Court ordered former Gov. Masahide Ota, now a Social Democratic Party member in the House of Councilors, to return the money and ruled that incumbent Gov. Keiichi Inamine acted illegally by not asking Ota to return the funds.

The district court said it was illegal for the Okinawa government to have built a 14.2-km road in Yambaru, completed in March 1998, because proper procedures for ending its conservation status had not been taken.

In addition to the road construction, the village of Kunigami in the north of Okinawa, developed 28.4 hectares of farmland with subsidies from the national and prefectural governments.

The suit was originally filed by the conservation group in 1996, seeking the suspension of local government spending on the projects.

Ota welcomed Thursday’s ruling as “appropriate and rightful.”

“I have cherished the nature of Okinawa more than any other people,” the former governor said, charging that it was the conservationist group that refused to hold dialogue with the prefectural government over the matter.

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