07 June 2002
Maha Al-Azar Daily Star
Rumors of a proposed private marina in Ramlet al-Baida have environmentalists and beach regulars steaming over the possible confiscation of the capital’s last public stretch of sand and surf. As the days grow longer and hotter, critics of private beach-property ownership have argued that Ramlet al-Baida is the only recreational retreat open at no cost to the capital’s 1 million residents.
“The overwhelming majority (of people) cannot afford the high cost of private beaches, some of whose owners have usurped the Beirut shores in avoidance of the law,” Beirut Municipal Council member Abdel-Hamid Fakhoury said in a statement last month.
Decree 4810, passed in 1966, safeguards the continuity of the coast, forbidding seaside property owners from barring public access to the sea and from building permanent structures.
Owners of coastal land are also forbidden from establishing any tourist or industrial projects on their plots unless they benefit the “public interest.” Fakhoury proposed to the Municipal Council and concerned Beirut nongovernmental organizations last week that the municipality expropriate the 40,000 square meters of privately owned beachfront in Ramlet al-Baida. He suggested that the municipality run the entire property as a continuous public beach to “meet Beirut residents’ urgent need to enjoy free swimming in the summer.”
The municipality, which once owned all 50,000 square meters of the beach, began illegally selling plots in 1988. Under the 1998 Municipalities Law, which allowed municipalities to sell land unused by urban planners, the illegal sale was legitimized by categorizing the sold land as “leftovers.”
According to Fakhoury, “left-over” land never exceeds a couple of hundred square meters. “Besides, there was never any urban plan around the beach for there to be leftovers,” he said, claiming the current council nearly sold its last 8,500 square meters of the beach until the accounting department intervened, ruling that the remaining properties were not “leftovers.” Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was said to be the potential buyer.
The council proceeded last month to exchange the municipal land, located on the rocky northern edge of the beach, with plots of equal size at the beach’s center, which Hariri had previously bought. What Hariri could not obtain by direct purchase, he obtained through this exchange. Fakhoury opposed the exchange “regardless of who wants to buy,” and “because the beach is a public right.”
The municipal plot, which makes up just 18 percent of the total of the Ramlet al-Baida beach, is the last piece of public property on Beirut ‘s coast and is too small to accommodate the tens of thousands of people who flock there each year, he said.
“Building public beaches is one of the municipality’s most important duties as stated in the Municipalities Law,” said Fakhoury, claiming Hariri was planning to build a yacht club on the land he recently acquired from the municipality. A spokesman from Hariri’s media office said that no such plan was in the works. The National Action Forum, which was established by former Prime Minister Salim Hoss, a Hariri rival, issued a statement lamenting the removal last December of a staircase facilitating people’s access to the beach and a sign reading “ Public Beach .”
The staircase and sign were placed in Ramlet al-Baida under a 1983 Cabinet decision, which proclaimed the area a public beach after Beirut residents had used it as such for decades.
“Next thing you know (the government) will ask us to stay home and swim in our bathtubs,” said 22-year-old Hussein Shaheen, who grew up coming to the beach with his family. Shaheen and his friends complained that they now have to climb down precarious ladders to swim at Ramlet al-Baida.
Beirut Municipal Council member Mohammed Kheir Qadi, who supported the municipal land swap, claimed the municipality has neither the power nor the resources to expropriate land from private owners.
With Ramlet al-Baida’s real-estate prices ranging from $3,000 to $5,000 per square meter, it would cost the municipality between $120 million and $200 million to purchase the remaining 40,000 square meters of beach. Some 32,000 square meters of this land belong to Hariri’s Mediterranean Real Estate company, while the Boubes and Doumit families own the remainder.
“There’s a difference between reality and dreams. Let’s do what’s within our means,” Qadi said. He told critics of Ramlet al-Baida’s privatization to “leave Hariri alone,” adding: “They can’t defeat him anyway.” The pro-Hariri Qadi accused the critics of being motivated by their political opposition to the premier.
But Fakhoury said the municipality could buy the beach if it wanted, because legislation prohibiting construction on beach property had reduced real estate prices “enormously.”
“(Beirut Municipal Council members) always say they have no money. How is it that other smaller municipalities are able to?” asked Salman Abbas, the secretary-general of the environmental NGO Green Line, one of 30 NGOs to petition against the privatization of Ramlet al-Baida. “If they can’t do their job, let them move aside for people who can,” he said.