Throw open the doors

The public must be given a say in how Beirut grows

Executive Magazine - - Leaders -

There’s a glar­ing con­tra­dic­tion be­tween the pri­vately owned plots on the cadas­tral map of Beirut and leg­is­la­tion re­gard­ing own­er­ship along the coast. A 1925 de­cree — still in force to­day — says that the coast is public prop­erty. It de­fines coast, or “mar­itime public domain,” as the “seashore un­til the far­thest dis­tance that the wave[s]could reach in win­ter and sand shores and peb­bles.” This should au­to­mat­i­cally mean that the sandy beach of Ram­let al-Baida is un­ques­tion­ably public prop­erty. Yet the cadas­tral maps for the area show that the sandy beach has been di­vided into parcels, which are to­day al­most en­tirely pri­vately owned. Ex­ec­u­tive has not yet been able to as­cer­tain how this hap­pened, but the fact re­mains that it did. And this is not just an es­o­teric legal in­con­gruity: it af­fects one of the city’s last un­de­vel­oped coastal ar­eas, in­clud­ing its only sandy beach. Clearly, a rea­son­able so­lu­tion is needed to bal­ance the public’s right to en­joy the coast with the sub­stan­tial sums of money pri­vate own­ers have in­vested in the land.

One op­tion would be for ei­ther the city of Beirut or the Le­banese state to buy the land, thus pre­serv­ing it for the public. Such a move would work best in the con­text of a larger, well stud­ied ur­ban plan for the city, and should not be a knee jerk re­ac­tion to public anger. Af­ter all, both the city of Beirut and the gov­ern­ment cur­rently own land along Beirut’s west­ern coast, yet we see no sign that ei­ther is cur­rently man­ag­ing its trash-strewn parcels to max­i­mize public use and ben­e­fit. A par­al­lel and more im­me­di­ate so­lu­tion would be to make the process of ob­tain­ing ex­emp­tions from coastal zon­ing laws more dif­fi­cult and — cru­cially — more ex­pen­sive. Ex­emp­tions are, af­ter all, de­vi­a­tions from duly en­acted public pol­icy. They should be nei­ther eas­ily ob­tain­able nor wildly lu­cra­tive.

The best and most ef­fi­cient way to do this would also be one of the sim­plest: bring the ex­emp­tions process into the light. Cur­rently, de­vel­op­ments re­quir­ing ex­emp­tions re­ceive only a tech­ni­cal re­view be­fore be­ing sent to the Coun­cil of Min­is­ters for po­lit­i­cal ap­proval be­hind closed doors. The public has no say in this process — a highly prob­lem­atic fact when de­vel­op­ments abut or en­croach upon lands used by many cit­i­zens, such as those along Beirut’s west­ern coast.

The public must be al­lowed to eval­u­ate and com­ment on project ex­emp­tions. At a min­i­mum, that means bet­ter dis­clo­sure of aber­rant devel­op­ment plans, and public hear­ings open to all cit­i­zens with an opin­ion to air. While not a panacea, this mi­nor re­form would in­tro­duce a higher stan­dard of scru­tiny that is sorely lack­ing at present. And while it would not ad­dress all coastal de­vel­op­ments, it would place greater con­straints on the largest — the Eden Rock Re­sort on Ram­let al-Baida, cur­rently in the ex­ca­va­tion phase, would have been af­fected, for in­stance.

Bring­ing the ex­emp­tions process into the light should only be the first step to bet­ter me­di­ate be­tween pri­vate landown­ing in­ter­ests and those of the public, but it is a nec­es­sary one. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers, throw open your doors.

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