The Chuchai Buri Sri Amphawa may not be the first property development project to emerge from the skyline in Amphawa, but it was the final straw which has made conservationists stand up against what they call over-development of cultural tourism in this canal-side community in Samut Songkhram province.
The construction of Chuchai Buri Sri Amphawahas been suspended, but not before the development project attracted criticism for ruining the cultural heritage of old-town Amphawa. KHONRAK MAEKLONGCOMMUNITY GROUP
The controversial project is another example of how often cultural tourism can go wrong in Thailand.
Situated a short distance from Bangkok, Amphawa has become a popular destination for Bangkokians who long for nostalgia and a slow-paced lifestyle. Guesthouses have been sprouting as the demand for tourist accommodation skyrockets.
On the one hand, the tourism boom means more jobs and higher incomes for the younger generation who want to stay in or return to their home town.
On the other hand, local communities struggle to handle the influx of tourists, money, and over-development when flourishing business attracts wealthy outside investors.
But suspension of the Chuchai Buri Sri Amphawa project has helped make locals rethink how to strike a balance.
Visually, the project, with its sheer size and European-style design, threatens the natural beauty and charm of this tranquil neighbourhood that has gained recognition from Unesco and the Association of Siamese Architects.
Developed by jewellery trader Chuchai Chairittilert, the 500-million-baht project sparked a public outcry when parts of wooden shophouses were torn down to make way for the construction. Harsh criticism forced the developer to freeze the demolition.
Opponents of the project, while questioning the transparency in the municipality's approval process from the beginning, initially stifled their own doubts as they lacked information and were afraid of local authorities.
It was the conservationists under the Khon Rak Mae Klong community group and some academics who submitted complaints to several House and Senate committees, two of which have stepped in to investigate.
While Mr Chuchai boasted in many interviews with the local media that he was building a luxury hotel as ''the next landmark for this old town'', the developer registered his project _ and also gained approval from the Amphawa municipality earlier this year _ as a residential space. The manoeuvre meant the developer could sidestep the Hotel Act which prohibits placing any hotel within 100 metres of a temple. The building site is opposite Wat Pak Ngam temple.
The timing of the registration is crucial. Mr Chuchai registered his project before the new town planning takes effect. According to the new town planning (hopefully to be implemented by the end of next year), the neighbourhood will only be used for conservation purposes only.
An investigation by the Senate committee on natural resources and environment found that the project, with utility space of almost 10,000 square metres for five buildings in total, needs an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report.
However, as the developer registered each building individually, each ranging from 534 sq m to 3,243 sq m, he could go ahead with the project without an EIA.
A senior municipality officer told the Senate committee at a meeting early this month that his office did not require EIA reports from the developer as each individual building has less than 4,000 sq m of utility space. By law, an EIA report is mandatory for a building or a project with more than 4,000 sq m of utility space or a project with over 80 rooms. The senior municipal official said the project technically ''did not breach environmental regulations'' when each building was separately registered.
The Senate committee believed that the Amphawa municipality should either call for an EIA report for the project, or the project management should revise its construction plan to reduce the utility space.
The municipality presented the two options to the project management, and the local government deserves some praise for following the Senate committee's recommendations.
The municipality's about-turn helped to calm anxiety in the community, but a wiser and more transparent move would have been to call for public hearings in addition to the EIA report _ before the before the first foundation pillar was laid on the plot.
To avoid a repeat of this problem, communities with cultural heritage need a tailor-made ''municipality design guide'' with strict town planning procedures.
The guide should limit the size of buildings to maintain original facades, exterior designs, colours, and materials within designated conservation zones. Buildings situated in buffer zones can be slightly different while modern structures are restricted to new town areas only.
This case won't be the last unless legal loopholes are closed. ''Technical error'' in this case has been a costly lesson, not only for the local authorities but also the whole community.
Residents and conservationists don't oppose investment in their communities, said Siriwat Kantaros, a community group member. But development must be done with transparency, he said.
''There's nothing we can do to stop the project,'' he said.
''The damage has been done. But the project owner and the municipality must right the wrong,'' he added.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a feature writer for Life section, Bangkok Post.
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- Writer: Sirinya Wattanasukchai