Throw open the doors

The public must be given a say in how Beirut grows

Greg Demarque | Executive

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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