Ramlet al-Baida: Activating Laws to Protect the Environment and the Coast
For months, public opinion has followed the case of Ramlet al-Baida and the legal developments and reactions from society it has provoked. The case began to unfold when a major building contractor obtained a permit from the municipality of Beirut authorizing them to construct a building over 20,000 square meters, just two meters away from a coastal stretch that is public, in the area of Ramlet al-Baida. It is known that this beach area is the only remaining seafront outlet for the community of Beirut, as well as one of its natural resources and beautiful landscapes. By resorting to the judiciary, the Green Line Association (an environmental organization) in cooperation with The Legal Agenda, was able to keep this case in the public eye in a way that moves beyond merely expressing anger or discontent.
Raising the case’s profile in public discourse is a deplorable spectacle in which the investment company behind the project has insisted on expanding its work, in clear defiance of successive decisions of the State Council to stop activities covered by the permit. This has undoubtedly been achieved with the complicity of elements within the state. Furthermore, the contractor has begun beaming projector lights to ensure that its work continues through the night. These lights have come to emblemize the corruption that is eating away at the state, in full view of everyone.
The Plaintiffs only managed to extinguish these lights after they secured a third ruling from a Summary Affairs judge that compelled the company to follow judicial rulings, or face a fine of LL150 million [US$99,252] for each day it remained in violation – ending a battle to enforce the court’s rulings that had lasted over a month. Regardless of the case’s outcome (developments are expected between the date of the writing of this article and its publication), it has acquired a symbolic status on a number of fronts. Here, we attempt to illustrate its most prominent aspects.
For the past decade and a half in Lebanon, a number of laws and decrees have been issued to protect the environment; this is in line with developments in this field internationally. Despite the importance of the tools that can be derived from this set of laws, which still need further development, they are seldom used by the state administration or in litigation to confront investment projects that violate the law’s provisions. Here, we will present the tools that have been used in the case of Ramlet al-Baida, and which are expected to be further strengthened in the coming stages of the case.
The Environmental Impact Study: Not Just a Formality
Among the legal justifications supporting the legal claim for revoking the building permit was an environmental impact study that was used to obtain the permit in the first place. This study, which dates back to 2013, was for another project planned by a different contractor. The [suing] association justified its legal claim on the basis that the study was in connection with a different project, most of which was planned for another piece of real estate that was farther from coastal property. They also cited the fact that the study’s two-year period of validity had expired, in accordance with a 2012 decree regarding environmental impact.
The Ministry of Environment assisted in the matter by presenting a criminal complaint to the environmental public prosecutor in Beirut. In response, however, the municipality of Beirut issued an inflammatory reply that expressed total disregard for environmental considerations. On one hand, the municipality adopted the position that the project –which was an 11-story, 20,000 square meter building in a highly sensitive area just two meters from coastal public property– did not require an environmental study. And on the other hand, even though the study was legally mandated, its absence did not result in the cancellation of the building permit. It was as if to say that considerations of environmental protection, and the lack of safeguards against exposing the environment to unlawful harm were not enough of a concern to merit interrupting business.
These responses have created an opportunity to highlight some aspects of the Implementing Decree of 2012, which has seldom been raised in court. Referencing explicit provisions of the 2012 regulation, the Green Line Association made clear that an environmental impact study was required, given that the project was tantamount to building a seaside complex in a sensitive area along the beach. Most importantly, they demonstrated that the study’s existence, the Ministry of Environment’s agreement with it, and enabling citizens to express their feedback, are all basic prerequisites for granting a permit. All this is abundantly clear in a chart in Appendix 6 of the 2012 Decree. And so, the association asked: why didn’t the municipality deem the absence of the study a reason to suspend the permit, given that it constitutes a criminal offense?
Thus, this case represents an opportunity to further the discussion around municipalities’ responsibilities towards protecting the environment; and, more particularly, the importance owed to environmental considerations, as weighed against the rights of landowners to their investments.
Public Domain as a Condition for Enjoying the Environment
With the downpour of rain in late 2016, the Lebanese discovered with astonishment the way that waves and sand can flood large sections of the land in question. This confirmed that there had been errors (if not falsifications) in how the public domain was demarcated – which, according to a 1925 ruling on the matter, includes the furthest point touched by waves and sand. The issue doesn’t stop here. Two extremely important issues can be found in the paperwork for the building permit.
First, the maps associated with the permit included the construction of landfills, terraces and slopes beyond the boundaries of the property and within the publicly owned part of the coast. The company that owned the land had treated the seaside property as an extension of its own private property, as though it had an exclusive right to occupy and fill it; this is contrary to legislation that regulates how the public space is to be occupied or used. What makes this violation more flagrant is the fact that the contractor placed a marketing image of the project showing the completed work on the beach, with its occupants enjoying it. Yet, Decree 4810/1966 states that public coastal property is reserved “for public use; no one may acquire the right to close it off for private interests”.
While the decree allows the designation of part of the beach for the exclusive use of individuals and groups, it is also clear about the need to place limitations on such use. The most important of these limitations is that such permission be granted on a temporary basis, by special decree, for a period not to exceed one year, and that it not result in any acquired right over the public domain.
Furthermore, given the absence of any specific regulation regarding Ramlet al-Baida, the violation has happened perforce. It is notable that the abundance of regulations has permitted the restriction of beach use to individuals or companies to such an extent that this kind of private use has become the rule, and public use the exception, rather than the other way around. This has mobilized the environmental movement to challenge future regulations as well as the renewal of existing ones.
A second breach of the public property rights was committed by the Higher Council for Urban Planning. Although in a previous decision the Council had mandated a distance of 25 meters between coastal public space and building sites, it agreed to an exception for the land that was the subject of the lawsuit, permitting construction just two meters from the coastal public domain. This distance allowed the contractor to distort the view of Ramlet al-Baida, and threatened the continuity of the coastline – even though the Higher Council for Urban Planning also insists that this must be respected.
It would seem that the exemption granted to the company violated Environmental Law 444/2002, which stipulates that free access to the sea must be guaranteed. It also violates the Land Readjustment Regulation, which guarantees the protection of beaches and particularly of Ramlet al-Baida (see below). Moreover, the exemption is unsound because of the inherent contradiction in agreeing to a buffer zone of only two meters while also mandating the continuity of the shoreline.
The Forgotten Land Readjustment Regulation
Issued on June 20, 2009, Decree 2366 put into place a comprehensive land management plan. This regulation is tantamount to a general guiding framework for urban planning and land use in Lebanon. Its second article states that ministries, municipalities, public administrations, public establishments, independent interests, and municipal unions are required to adopt guidelines in keeping with this plan in all aspects of their work related to the use and regulation of land. In other words, these guidelines are binding at all levels of public administration, including local administrations like the municipality of Beirut.
Underscoring this is the fact that the regulation puts a mechanism in place, in the event that it is not feasible for public administration to implement its provisions. In such a case, they are required to raise the issue with the relevant minister or cabinet for official permission to deviate from the regulation. And yet despite its importance, the decree has not been put to judicial or administrative use. Its first judicial use, in fact, may be in the context of challenging the permit for the Ramlet al-Baida project.
Some of the most notable aspects of the comprehensive land use plan, and the ways that the permit granted to the landowner in this case conflicts with it, are as follows.
The comprehensive plan included a special section related to shore features, which stated that the coastline at Ramlet al-Baida “constitutes a scarce resource in Lebanon, and all of it falls within the coastal public property, which all citizens must be permitted to access at no cost. Removing sand and dumping trash there are not permitted, and it must be managed and kept clean in the appropriate manner. Citizens’ free access to the beach at Ramlet al-Baida may be ensured in the form of a regulation recognizing an absolute right to public access to the beach, alongside the sea, on a strip of land no less than three meters wide along the entire shoreline”.
The plan identifies three distinctive sites in Beirut that “constitute an inseparable part of the capital’s identity: the waterfront at Ain Marisa, the Raouche Rocks and their bay, and the beach at Ramlet al-Baida”. The plan affirms the necessity of protecting the natural attributes of these sites from real estate and construction projects that might distort their features.
The Legal Standing of Environmental Organizations
As happens in many rights-based cases, the municipality of Beirut contested the legal standing of the Green Line environmental association. Yet in doing so, it contradicted its own actions, given that it had affirmed in another lawsuit (the secret regulation of the tenth district) the legal standing of environmental organizations in raising similar legal cases. It also contradicted the development of administrative efforts towards broadening the recognition of associations’ standing when bringing lawsuits in defense of their key objectives; particularly when it comes to legal actions that challenge administrative decisions that overstep the bounds of their authority (i.e., on the basis that they are not lawful or legitimate).
However, in light of Article 3 of Environmental Protection Law 444/2002, whatever is the case in rights-based issues is even more applicable when it comes to environmental issues. This article holds every citizen responsible for the protection of the environment, and for meeting the needs of current generations without infringing upon the rights of future generations. It is also noteworthy that Appendix 5 of Regulation 8633/2012 clearly defines the persons concerned in the matter of environmental impact studies to include “local non-governmental environmental associations that produce knowledge and expertise”.
One can see movement towards accepting the Green Line Association’s standing, when it comes to raising legal claims through State Council rulings to halt implementation of both basic and modified building permits. It goes without saying that this is a pivotal issue, and one that will certainly have a significant positive impact on future plans for strategic litigation.
 On this subject, see: “The Physical Handicapped Union has the right to defend the right of persons with disabilities: an advance in the battle over [status/standing] and interests”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 48, March 2017.