New environmental laws to clarify issues around coastal properties

Draft changes to coastal legislation are in the pipeline that include new definitions for the legally crucial high water mark and for estuaries - those environmentally sensitive areas where rivers discharge into the sea.

The national Environment Department hopes that the proposed changes will resolve several legal and enforcement problems, including with the management of ocean-linked canals in waterfront and marina developments such as those at places like St Francis Bay in the Eastern Cape.

Also, the amended legislation is aimed at resolving serious differences between the department and Transnet over the management of ports.

Misunderstandings over Transnet's authority caused a debacle in 2008 when it was incorrectly reported that most of Table Bay and even a corner of Robben Island had been included in Transnet's 2006 sale of the Waterfront for around R7 billion.

But advocate Radia Razack told Parliament's environmental affairs portfolio committee yesterday that the issue of land reclamation from the sea - such as has been done at the Waterfront and where there are further plans to reclaim a substantial area - was not properly dealt with in the current Integrated Coastal Management Act that came into effect in December 2009.

"In the existing act there is just one line (on reclamation), so we need to look at it more carefully. There are huge potential impacts if this is not regulated properly."

Razack, director of legal services in the Department of Environmental Affairs, was part of the department's team briefing the committee on the Integrated Coastal Management Amendment Bill which is now before Parliament.

She explained that a "panicked" Transnet had argued that the 2009 act would have dispossessed it of its ownership of property in the ports and that it would not have been able to function as a result. However, the department had argued that excluding the parastatal from the provisions of the act would have "subverted our mandate".

A compromise solution had involved creating "extended ports" not subject to the act - a move that had required Parliament approving a special resolution - but this not proved satisfactory to either party and there had been "unintended consequences".

The amendment bill aimed to resolve this, partly through clarifying the ownership of Transnet's assets and by allowing the minister to exclude, by proclamation, any area from defined coastal public property for government purposes.

Razack said an issue in the amendment bill that might cause "emotional reaction" involved proposed changes to access to coastal public property.

Although the 2009 act had made it unlawful to restrict access to the beach, there were places where legitimate access fees were charged. "But we don't want these fees to be so high that they exclude the public and only allow access to a wealthy elite," she explained.

It was proposed that the minister would set a maximum access fee, and anyone wanting to charge more would have to apply and give reasons.

Committee chairman Johnny de Lange said he wanted public hearings on the amendment bill "a month or two down the line".

(Cape Argus)

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