Nizar Hassan Hashem Osseiran| The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeaiter vowed Monday to prevent the closure of Beirut’s only public beach after a judge earlier this month ordered its entrances shut following petitions by private developers.

“I am going to take all necessary measures to ensure that the Ramlet al-Baida beach will remain open to the public,” Zeaiter told The Daily Star in a telephone interview, adding that he has called on the Beirut Municipality and Interior Ministry to intervene.

“I have asked the Interior Ministry to take measures to ensure that the entrances to the beach are not closed so that the public will still have access to the area,” he said.

When asked about his stance on the private ownership of parts of the beach, Zeaiter said that his ministry “respects” private property, but has a “greater concern and greater respect for public property.”

On June 4, Beirut Judge of Urgent Matters Zalfa al-Hasan issued a decision to cordon off three major sections of the beach that cover roughly 28,000 square meters of Ramlet al-Baida, a popular destination for Beirut’s low-income families who cannot afford the exuberant entrance fees charged at private resorts.

Two real estate companies, Mediterranean Real Estate and Bahr Real Estate, both owned by businessman Wissam Ashour, claim ownership of those three sections of the beach, numbered 4026, 4027 and 2369. Irad Investment Holding group also owns some shares in those companies.

“We will investigate the claims of private ownership of parts of the beach,” Zeaiter said. “We are not here to revoke people’s ownership rights, but at the end of the day this beach is going to remain public.”

He said he urged the Beirut Municipality to take “quick and necessary measures” regarding the judicial decision.

Lebanese laws prevent property owners from erecting buildings on beaches because of the loose terrain.

But activists worry that developers could transform sections of Lebanon’s only free beach into luxury projects that cater to the wealthy, similar to what occurred last year when the state fenced off a section of Raouche.

The first law to regulate coastal properties was Order 144, issued in 1925 by Maurice Sarrail, the then-French High Commissioner in charge of Syria and Lebanon for one year during the French mandate.

Article 2 of that decision listed properties that should belong to the public, and included the “sea’s shore until the farthest area reached by waves during winter, as well as sand and rock shores.”

Activists point to the decision to argue that investors have no right to build in the public maritime domain.

However, Article 3 granted those who owned parts of coastal properties before the decision was issued the right to use them for commercial purposes. If the state was to prevent such use of these properties to safeguard public interest, it ought to pay “fair compensations in advance,” the decision said.

In 1966, another decree was issued to allow owners to build on their properties if their plans were approved by the Lebanese government and served touristic or industrial purposes.