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Mona Fawaz, professor in Urban Studies and Planning at the American University of Beirut, member of Beirut Madinati, and LCPS research fellow

May 2019
Trading Long-Term Development of Lebanon’s Built Environment for Shortsighted Gains

Since Lebanon’s cabinet received a vote of confidence on 15 February 2019, its focus has remained primarily on the budget deficit. Under the banner of “austerity”, decision-makers have sought ways to cut spending, often by digging into the salaries of underprivileged social groups. Concurrently, the challenge of accumulating revenues for empty public coffers has shifted attention toward building violations, specifically concerning structures which break zoning and urban laws (e.g. building taller and/or larger than allowed) or structures illegally situated in the maritime public domain. Imposing fines on owners of these structures is seen as a potentially important source of public revenue.[1]
Two legal proposals currently under discussion look to raise funds for public coffers by “regularizing” illegal constructions, meaning imposing fines on buildings that violate the Lebanese building law (Law 646 of 11/12/2004) in exchange of considering them “legal”, even if they do not comply with building regulations in place. The first, a proposal for the “regularization of building illegalities” (Decree No. 2590), allows owners of buildings that violate existing regulations to pay fines in exchange for “fixing” the “legal status” of their buildings. The second, the “fifth façade amendment to the Building Law 646/2004”, allows for the addition of an extra floor with a slanted roof on an already existing building in excess of allowable exploitation ratios. Neither of these regulations will require any assessment of the damage that these illegal constructions cause to their surroundings.[2]
Furthermore, a separate legal proposal was approved last month, introducing a three-month extension for Article 11 of Law 64 (first published on 26/10/2017 and expired six months later). During those three months, owners of structures illegally occupying maritime public domain are entitled to “treat”[3] their illegal occupation of the seafront by paying a fine. While Law 64 does not normalize such illegal encroachments, it fails to provide a road map to address violations. Instead, it imposes an annual fine, creating what seems like an indefinite extension of the illegal privatization of the maritime public domain.[4]
These three legal proposals reflect foremost a short-sighted understanding of public finance and the role that natural and built environments should play in a national economy. Instead of considering mountains, coasts, cities, and landscapes to be frameworks of productive livelihoods and essential elements in the effort to reignite the stalled national economy, these regulations effectively reduce these assets to consumables. In other words, these regulations trade the long-term development that should be accrued from a healthy environment for the short-term extraction of penalties.
Consider Lebanon’s coast, its lush beaches, and dramatic rock formations. They once were featured prominently on the covers of our Ministry of Tourism advertisements that touted Lebanon as the place that “abolished winter” while bragging of a unique natural landscape that attracted visitors from all corners of the globe. The open coastline’s contributions to national development were obvious: It provided a shared resource from which numerous small and larger businesses such as travel agents, postcard sellers, photographers, restaurateurs, hotel and resort owners and staff, and others benefited. By preventing any of these businesses from locating immediately on the coast, urban regulations protected the seafront as a shared asset. It was only with the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War that private resorts proliferated illegally along the coast, blocking access to and from the sea and restricting benefits from the coast to only the few who controlled access to the beaches. To give but one figure, over half of Beirut’s seafront is blocked today, making both visual and physical accesses impossible. Instead of recovering the national coast and appreciating its potential as an open and shared asset in the project of reigniting direly needed development growth, the government has opted to extend the illegal use of this space and reduce its potential to the mere extraction of levied penalties from those who will continue to accrue substantial private profits from its exploitation.
Similarly, the passage of a regularization law that allows property owners to legalize existing constructions that violate urban and/or building regulations renders these constructions a permanent element of our environment, irrespective of the damage they may cause to their surroundings. In exchange for paying meager fines, developments that obstruct natural lighting and ventilation or those that block streets or extend into or onto legally protected areas (including near riverbeds or sea coasts) will be permanently legalized. So will sprawl extended over agricultural lands and blockage of natural waterways in rural areas. The law does so without assessing the actual damage posed by the illegal development on the collective. It is a narrow calculation that translates volumes built in addition to exploitation factors into dollars. Through this, the parliament will exchange the long-term planning of Lebanon’s territories for the short-sighted extraction of monetary penalties needed to cover the chronic budget deficit. Accordingly, the possibility of cities acting as viable attractive spaces for businesses to flourish will be undermined, as will the future of Lebanon’s agricultural lands now littered with small scale haphazard constructions (many of which were temporarily permitted through the decree launched by the former Minister of Interior and Municipalities in anticipation of national elections in 2018).
One could further extend the debate on these proposed regulations to question the low fines imposed on those who have broken the law, given the major benefits some of these violators have enjoyed. Indeed, evaluations of land prices—on the basis of which penalties are imposed—consistently undervalue the price of land by several fold.[5] Furthermore, the calculation frameworks reduce the periods for which penalties can be levied—meaning illegal constructions in the maritime public domain completed before 1994 will not be subject to penalties. While valid, the critique leveraged against the amount of fees ignores the larger developmental costs of destroying natural and built environments. It thus risks displacing the conversation from a critique of the principle to a discussion of modalities.
It is worth noting that the approach to addressing illegalities adopted by the three legal proposals under discussion reflects serious flaws in Lebanon’s current governance. Indeed, rather than establishing a legal framework to organize the interactions of planning agencies, local and national authorities, and citizens, the regulations under discussion extend and encourage illegalities, all while claims of “fighting corruption” abound in official statements. The logical materialization in restoring a transparent legal framework of urban development and coastal management are undermined by the very approach that finds new lucrative opportunities from the very corruption it claims to fight.
Our natural and built landscapes are where we live and breathe. We can either look at them as the spaces where we build homes, establish businesses, and create a livable environment and sustainable economy or we can consider them transient spaces from which we can extract temporary cash until they are exhausted. Sadly, it is the latter view that guides Lebanon’s decision makers in this critical transition of our national history. It is high time to change the tone of the conversation: Economic development should be our first priority, and it can only be realized if we recognize our natural and built environments among its essential pillars.

[1] Speculation about funds that can be raised from illegally occupied coastal lands have varied. While early claims suggested that up to $1 billion could be raised, a recent study placed the revenues at $400 million. There are no evaluations of the amounts to be levied from the regularization of building violations.
[2] In Lebanon, zoning regulations determine allowable built-up areas for every lot through a total exploitation ratio that links built-up area to the size of a lot. Given the high price of land, almost all buildings developed after 1971 use up their entire exploitation ratio when they are developed. By allowing an additional floor, owners can build in excess of the maximum area specified by zoning in the region where the lot falls.
[3] The use of the term “treat” (in Arabic, معالجة) as opposed to regularize or penalize that was used in earlier legal proposals is noteworthy. It reflects the uneasiness of some of the decision makers at the prospect of recognizing rights for illegal occupants while others consider it an adequate solution since in their eyes, the problem resides in occupants refraining from paying a fee for the occupation of the maritime public domain and not the actual occupation of the maritime public domain.
[4] Consider the notorious “El Murr Floor” that was allowed during the civil war and became the subject of numerous critiques by urbanists, architects, and city dwellers for its multiple negative effects on Lebanon’s cities.
[5] LBCI nightly news broadcast 8 May 2019. https://tinyurl.com/yxhlw7j9

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