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All’s not well on the sea front
01/04/2006 NST-PROP By Salleh Buang

A couple of weeks ago, while attending a conference in Port Dickson, Negeri Sembilan, my good friend Chang Kim Loong of the National House Buyers Association handed me a brochure of a beachfront project in the area.

Described in glorious colour as “a whole new way of living on the seas”, the development is essentially a cluster of water chalets. Time constraint and lack of ready transport prevented me from taking a look at the place.

Nevertheless, according to the brochure dated April 2004, “earth reclamation work” was nearing completion and ahead of schedule, while piling (in the sea) was “scheduled to be completed by August 2004”. This, I was made to understand, was a “first-of-its-kind” project for PD.

I certainly have nothing against developers undertaking tourism-related projects in the district. In fact, I am a strong supporter of the State’s tourist development efforts and think the authorities have done a splendid job sprucing up the beaches and improving the general landscape. Teluk Kemang today is a far cry from what it was in the 60s and 70s.

Nevertheless, the brochure was disturbing. My question is, did the State Government and the local planning authority consider the long-term effect of such encroachment on the beach – the precedent it might create and the trend it might set in motion – when they approved the project?

If other developers start building water chalets along the beach, pretty soon ordinary citizens would find it difficult – or impossible – to gain access to their favourite beaches.

The PD project reminded me of a June 2005 news report about protests by 10,000 residents of Teluk Bayu and Sungai Batu in Teluk Kumbar, Penang. Opposing a proposed development of a beach area in their locality, the report said the residents had been using the area in question for recreational activity for a very long time, and they feared the development would forever deprive them of a vital social amenity.

The report said the Penang Regional Development Authority (Perda) planned to develop medium-and high-cost housing on the beach frontage. Resident Abdul Hamid Ahmad, 57, argued that this would mean the local people would lose their beach forever, and called on Perda to instead turn the place into a rest and recreation area, with water sports facilities since such a development would benefit everybody. High-cost housing, he noted, would only be enjoyed by the wealthy.

Beachfront developments such as the water chalet project in PD and the housing scheme in Teluk Kumbar raise some hard questions. Exactly who owns the beaches across the nation? Are they State land or are they private properties?

If they are State land, should the relevant authority alienate beach areas to the private sector for real estate development – such as condos, marinas and water chalets? If they are private property, and the owners intend to develop them, how do we ensure that people will still have unhindered access to their beaches – something they’ve been enjoying all along?

Is there a national or State policy that the beach (or at least a designated proportion of it) is forever held as public domain, never to be alienated by a State Authority to anybody?

Or is it policy that privately-owned beachfront properties can only be developed if public access to the beach is guaranteed? If there is no such policy for the present, should we have it in the future?

In the United States, the law relating to ownership of beachfront properties varies from State to State. Issues of ownership and access become complicated as a result of several factors, including legislation, case law and the various categories beaches come under.

Beachfront properties in US generally fall into three categories – the wet sand belt; the dry sand beach area from the mean high water mark to the vegetation line; and the uplands, which lie landward of the sand dunes.

State legislation generally recognises the public trust doctrine of English common law. According to this doctrine, the wet sand belt should forever be dedicated to public use and therefore, never be alienated. But there are numerous exceptions.

In Maine, for example, apparently 90 per cent of the coastline is already privately owned, right down to the low-tide line. In contrast, 90 per cent of Oregon’s beaches are State property.

In Texas, the General Land Office holds the wet sand area and the submerged land belt in trust for the public. The dry beach area can be privately held, but always subject to public easement.

The people have retained this right of access and enjoyment by virtue of a tradition dating back to the arrival of European settlers, when the beach was actually used as a road.

In ancient times, stagecoach lines used the beaches of Galveston Island. Today, many of the Texas beaches continue to be used as roads. Not only are vehicles allowed to drive on many coastal beaches, some local coastal authorities even maintain beach surfaces for that purpose.

Since 1959, with the coming into force of the Texas Open Beaches Act, public access to and use of beaches in the State have been guaranteed. Should we have a similar law over here?

I am told that Texas has 587km of beaches, of which 467km are open for public use and the remaining accessible to the public. Under rules laid down by the General Land Office, local authorities can limit vehicular traffic on beaches as long as adequate off-beach parking is provided. Local authorities are responsible for developing and maintaining public entrances to beaches. For that purpose, beach access rules were issued and access plans published.

The picture is not so bright in Southwest Florida. Here, more often than not, condos block public access to “surf and sand”. According to some reports, in Florida, you can only find one beach access point for every 8km of coast.

In Malibu and along the California coast, wealthy beachfront property owners have for a long time cut off public access to the beach. Some have even gone as far as using heavy machinery to scoop up tons of public beach sand and piled it on their private property. For many years, phoney “private beach” signs have been appearing along the beach.

As a result, while 80 per cent of California’s 34 million people live within an hour of the coast, many of the low-income communities have been denied the benefit of unhindered beach access.

If we are not careful, this could happen soon in places such as PD.

My question is whether PD residents should accept such an undesirable trend without putting up a fight? Perhaps they should consider starting a campaign to ensure that their beaches will forever be free for enjoyment by the general public.

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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