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Spare the beaches, save the shorelines

30/07/2005 NST-PROP By Salleh Buang

Monday July 25 turned out to be an important date for the planning profession in this country. This was when the National Physical Plan (NPP, formerly called the National Spatial Plan) was “officially launched” by the Government at a five-star hotel in George Town, Penang.

Many conference papers on the NPP have already been presented and published and there is abundant literature on the subject in cyberspace. There is, therefore, no further need for me to elaborate on the subject.

By 2020, said a report in New Straits Times (“Guidelines on development”, July 25, 2005), three-quarters of our population will be living in urban areas. Therefore the pressure on the Government to provide adequate, comfortable housing, increased employment opportunities, better and efficient transport services and a generally better quality of life will be great and ever mounting

But while more attention has to be focused on the urban centres, it does not mean that the other areas can be neglected.

In this respect, I have to ask who (if anybody) will look after our beaches? Will not the absence of continuous monitoring, control and oversight lead to their degradation, and finally destruction? The following story of a proposed development along a lovely stretch of beach in Teluk Bayu, Penang, is a case in point.

NST’s sister paper Berita Harian on June 6, 2005 reported that more than 10,000 residents of the area were protesting plans to develop housing along a stretch of beach in their vicinity (“10,000 tolak projek perumahan di Teluk Bayu”).

The spot is their one and only beach access, which they have been using all this while for recreational activities. They feared that the proposed development would deprive them of a vital social amenity they had enjoyed all these years.

The report said the island-State’s Penang Regional Development Authority (Perda) wants to build medium and high-cost housing on the beach strip.

Resident Abdul Hamid Ahmad, 57, fears the villagers will lose their recreational beach forever if the housing project takes off. He said Perda could do better by turning the place into a rest and recreation area, with water sports facilities as well. Such a development will benefit everybody, unlike high-cost housing which can only be enjoyed by the wealthy.

Another resident, Najamuddin Zambri, 53, wants Perda to turn the place into a holiday resort for local and foreign tourists as this will cause beneficial spillover for the local residents, especially the youth.

There would be opportunities for employment as well as for the setting up of various businesses, not only for the villagers in the area.

According to Najamuddin, not many Malaysians, Penangites outside the locality included, are aware of the existence of the beach. This is because of poor signages to the place - which is a perpetual problem in all our towns and cities.

Ismail Nordin, the chairman of the community’s recreational and sports club, told the newspaper that some time ago, his club had submitted a formal application to Perda to develop the beach area into a water-based theme park and recreational project.

A year has passed, and he has yet to receive any reply from the agency.

Being only too familiar with this old malady called ORT or official red tape, I am not surprised Ismail did not get the reply he has been waiting for. It is as if the Prime Minister’s call for Cemerlang, Gemilang, Terbilang (or excellence) in public service has fallen on deaf ears. A pity.

Related to the question “Who looks after our beaches?” is, Do we have a specific, comprehensive law (either at Federal or State level) to protect our beaches and shorelines?

I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. In the United States, where the situation appears to be better than in this country, there is no single comprehensive legislation at Federal level to protect beaches and shorelines.

In States such as Hawaii, however, there are several old laws to which the public can turn for beach protection. Under the Coastal Zone Management Act (in force since 1972), a national programme has been established to ensure the beneficial use and protection of coastal zones and to regulate their development.

Under the Shoreline Protection Act of 1975, the maintenance, restoration and enhancement of the overall quality of the coastal zone environment is being continuously monitored and safeguarded, while public access to publicly owned or used beaches, recreation areas and national reserves has been ensured.

Under the Act, no development can be carried out - “no modern structure shall be constructed” - without a permit from the relevant authorities.

In Michigan there are several piecemeal legislation protecting specially designated areas. Among these are the Shorelands Protection and Management Act, the Sand Dune Protection and Management Act and the Wetland Protection Act. However, the problem in Michigan (very much like that in Malaysia) is that the authorities “rarely say no” to development projects, even when “sensitive shorelines” are affected.

Under Delaware’s law, titled Beach Preservation Act 1953, the beaches in the State are “declared to be valuable natural features which furnish recreational opportunity” as well as “an important economic resource for the people of the State”. Delaware stresses that development and habitation of beaches must be done “with due consideration to the natural forces impacting upon them”.

This law is stringently enforced “to preserve and protect” the beaches, to prevent and mitigate beach erosion and to “create civil and criminal remedies for acts destructive of beaches”. Enforcement of the law is in the hands of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

Under paragraph 6,805 of the Act, no person shall undertake any of the following activities unless the department has issued a permit or letter of approval:

• Construct, modify, repair or reconstruct any structure or facility on any beach seaward of the building line; or

• Alter, dig, mine, move, remove or deposit any substantial amount of beach or other materials or cause the significant removal of vegetation on any beach seaward of the building line, which may affect the enhancement, preservation or protection of beaches.

The term “building line” has been defined to mean “a line generally paralleling the coast, seaward of which construction of any kind shall be prohibited without a permit or letter of approval from the department”, and is marked on maps prepared by the department.

If construction activities are carried out landward of the building line, a permit or letter of approval from the department is also required.

After reading the law, I got the feeling that approval for development activities seaward of the building line would be very rarely (if ever) given, while landward of the building line, permits will be issued only if various stringent conditions are fulfilled.

In Florida, the law is contained in its Beach and Shore Preservation Act empowering the Bureau of Beaches and Coastal Systems, acting in concert with the Department of Environmental Protection, to control and regulate developments on the State’s beaches. Detailed rules are made in the form of subsidiary legislation, contained in documents known as the Coastal Construction Permit Program as well as the Coastal Construction Control Line Permit Program.

To sum up, while we welcome the official launch of the National Physical Plan (anchored under the new Section 6B of the Town and Country Planning Act 1976), earlier this week and everything that comes with it, we should also be serious about protecting our beaches and shorelines.

In this age of runaway development, can’t we all agree to leave them be just as they are? Why must we spoil everything that Mother Nature has given us?

Salleh Buang is senior advisor of a company specialising in competitive intelligence. He is also active in training and public speaking and can be reached at


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