Fears coastal law will ease environmental protections

December 09, 2012, Sunday/ 15:32:00/ NOAH BLASER

A draft law soon to be debated in Parliament would give a green light to development along Turkey’s protected coastal zones, proposing a rollback in environmental protections and a transfer of public lands to private developers.

If passed, the law would remove a 1990 moratorium on construction within 100 meters of the seashore, reducing that limit to five meters and legalizing structures constructed in those zones before 1992.

The draft law, which garnered a loud chorus of protests from the press and urban planners last week -- particularly over alleged plans to open up undeveloped areas of the Bosporus to construction -- in a way, acknowledges the long-time reality of illegal state and private development along Turkey’s coastlines. As one local paper in the southern province of Muğla noted this week, in the seaside town of Bozburun, “there is perhaps one hotel that is legal under existing law, though the mosque, the police station, the school, and even the city hall are all, of course, illegal.”

The newly proposed law, however would see a fresh, explicitly sanctioned wave of new development in costal zones, and according to the Ministry of Environment and Urban Development, includes proposals to zone and sell state-owned shoreline properties in 22 coastal cities, including İstanbul, İzmir, Antalya, Trabzon, Samsun, Zonguldak, Çanakkale, Muğla and Mersin.

“Regrettably, there’s already quite a bit of development along the coasts, but the existing law has still done a lot to restrain development in places that should be protected,” says İlhan Tekeli, a professor of urban planning at Middle East Technical University.

A look at Trabzon’s seaside airport, the infamous coastal highway in İzmir that saw the destruction of hundreds of historic buildings, and scores of new Bosporus-side hotels all suggest that the law has been, at best, selectively enforced. “The law should be strengthened, not reversed. As the country becomes wealthier, it should be able to hold off from selling off its environmental treasures,” Tekeli says.

“The other aspect of this law is that it creates a nation-wide -- and therefore ill-fitting -- standard for coastal development,” says urban planner and architect Hüseyin Kaptan. “In İstanbul, new construction has to be regulated as closely as possible to prevent the destruction of the last green areas. In other areas, such as on the Aegean, where tourism is so important, people expect hotels to be close to the waterfront and there’s enough space to accommodate that. The decision of how to best use coastal areas has to be examined province by province,” he argues.

Kaptan also suggests that “in a perfect world, the use of a region’s natural resources would be determined by the public,” he says, lamenting the construction of a highway in his Black Sea hometown of Hopa. “It cut the community off from the sea, something residents never would have agreed to if they had a choice.” That logic, in turn, leads Kaptan to also show skepticism for the existing protections. “Some things need to be built by the sea. Otherwise, how could we even have harbors?” he says of the current law’s protective but widely unenforced law.

If public involvement and region-by-region discussion are what make development meet the needs of local communities, the government doubtlessly certainly has a long way to go before it perfects its record on urban planning and construction. Time may be running out -- as well as modifying coastal protections, the proposed law also will see the ownership of many disused military zones within city limits transferred to the Housing Development Administration of Turkey (TOKİ). As the last remaining patches of undeveloped land, those military properties may easily slip into TOKİ-approved developer’s hands, city planners warn. “What is worrying is that the government and local municipalities in Turkey don’t have a history of preserving green from developers,” said Kaptan.

One instructive case is that of Maslak 1453, a controversial housing project recently developed by Turkish business magnate Ali Ağaoğlu. When his proposal to buy a large tract of public forest for the project was turned down, the press widely assumed that it was the result of a personal dispute between Ağaoğlu and the municipality. Few, if any, assumed that the government had rejected the sale in order to protect pristine forest.

For the gravely voiced Timur Bayındır, head of the Turkish Hoteliers’ Association (TUROB), that lack of protection is seen to threaten something more important than business. “As a hotelier, I can see the positive side of removing this regulation,” he noted. But when he speaks of the potential of seeing further development of the Bosporus’ last green zones, he says he hopes “that won’t be true. As a resident of İstanbul, I can say it’s getting so there’s not even a place left to breathe.”

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