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A long hot summer: Beirut public beaches disappear Municipal Council divided over private ownership

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.

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