'Green' light for condos?
Plan to simplify environmental approval for condo projects pleases developersTo the dismay of environmentalists, condominium developers and buyers can anticipate greater ease of doing business, thanks to a planned amendment to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process.
Developers have complained that the EIA approval process under current rules and regulations is obscure, giving too much power to a committee whose decisions are seen as subjective. Under rules backed by environmentalists and groups of residents whose neighbourhoods have been endangered by mushrooming growth of condo blocks, no condo unit can be transferred to the buyer if the project does not pass an EIA.
But if an amendment to the rules proposed by Santi Boonprakub, secretary-general of the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP), is adopted, all these complaints could simply disappear. Developers will no longer be subjected to the judgements of the EIA committee as long as they meet a set of clearly specified and standardised criteria. Local governments, like the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), whose jurisdiction covers Bangkok and its nearby provinces, will ensure developers meet the criteria, before and after construction.
"The EIA committee is now overwhelmed with applications, leaving it without the resources it needs [to consider] projects that pose a greater environmental threat. The amendment should relieve our burden and address developers' complaints," Santi said.
Between 2006 and October this year, his agency approved EIAs for 323 condominium projects. The panel has to review about 30-50 EIA reports a year, in line with increasing demand for high-rise units. According to the Real Estate Information Centre, from 2008 to September 2012, 230,427 condo units were registered in Greater Bangkok. Condos account for about half of all residential units hitting the market.
Santi wants to amend the 1992 Environmental Quality Protection and Promotion Act, which currently requires developers to conduct an EIA report and seek approval from a panel of environmental experts before construction begins. Once the report is approved by the expert panel, developers are required to submit the approved report to local authorities to get a licence.
A team has been appointed to study if the requirement to obtain the panel's approval can be scrapped. Instead, developers would face a standard code of practice. Guided by the EIA, the code would require compliance in key areas like wastewater treatment, proportion of green areas and parking lots, and total space and setback distance. Local governments would monitor compliance, rather than the ONEP.
Santi said this would help developers complete condo projects more quickly. "If they are sufficiently confident they are able to comply with the measures, they will just attach the list of measures they plan to adopt with applications for construction licences. The local authorities will then evaluate whether to grant permission to developers."
Developers welcomed the move. Thai Condominium Association chief Thamrong Panyasakulwong said that on paper, the clearly defined code of practice looks better than the current system and should give greater clarity in terms of compliance.
The BMA, which received 60 applications for condominium construction licences from January through September, says it is ready to accommodate the regulatory change.
Pinit Lertudomtana, director of the BMA's Building Control Division, said he welcomed Santi's idea to transfer the approval process to local authorities. He understood that the amendment process would take time, and said the BMA would use the time to add staff to cope with the higher volume of work.
The BMA's task is currently limited to issuing construction licences to developers who have EIA approval, as well as monitoring compliance. "Of course, we must do this job if the ONEP wants us to do it, because it is a responsibility we cannot avoid," Pinit said.
To address the workload problem, Pinit suggested that local authorities subcontract building inspections to private companies. Then, they could allocate human resources to reviewing applications and handing out construction licences.
For environmentalists like Stop Global Warming Association chairperson Srisuwan Janya, however, the ONEP plan sets alarm bells ringing. He opposes the proposal, saying the ONEP should be a neutral agency that checks and monitors the environmental impacts caused by condominium construction and development.
"The ONEP should increase its human resources to do this job instead of transferring the responsibility to local authorities," he said.
Even with the ONEP's screening, people living near construction sites suffer negative environmental impacts. Srisuwan's group has represented two groups of residents - in Bangkok's Lak Si district and Sukhumvit Soi 68 - in lawsuits against two condo projects. Lawsuits filed at the Central Administrative Court state that local residents were negatively affected by the height of planned buildings. While the first group said the Lak Si project, which is under construction, blocked sunlight and killed much of their view. The second said the already completed Sukhumvit building, with hundreds of tenants, caused traffic woes.
The problems existed even though the condo blocks got EIA approved, Srisuwan said.
Earlier this year the ONEP played a role in delaying the construction of a condo project on the Chao Phraya that blocked the view of long-time residents in a nearby condo.
The Central Administrative Court judge in charge of the Sukhumvit case commented recently in favour of local residents, suggesting the project's EIA was illegitimate as it was conducted without consulting nearby residents. On Thursday, the court will give a verdict on the project's EIA process, which could invalidate its construction licence.
With or without ONEP's participation, such conflicts are certain to become more frequent in line with the rising demand for high-rises. As land prices soar and oil prices creep up, the popularity of condo blocks will only rise.