DEBBIEH, Lebanon: The fate of candidates running in Sunday’s municipal by-elections in the town of Debbieh depends on how voters view a controversial zoning project which was responsible for the collapse of the town council last year.
“The election this Sunday is a referendum on the zoning of Dalhamieh,” said Chadi Boustany, a lawyer running on a list against the former mayor.
The tense debate between rival camps over the zoning issue stands in sharp contrast to the apparent calm in the town in the runup to the elections, as campaigning has been largely limited to closed-door meetings between families and rival lists, with no campaign posters on display.
The Dalhamiyeh area of Debbieh was once home to a golf course and a nature reserve and opponents of the former mayor, George Boustany, are expressing concern that it will become home to huge residential projects.
The controversy surrounding Dalhamieh began several years ago when a wealthy businessman, Robert Mouawad, sold his investment in the area to a real estate developer, Ali Tajeddine.
“After securing the land, Tajeddine tasked an engineering company with developing a plan to have Dalhamieh rezoned into a residential area,” Chadi Boustany said.
Opponents have claimed that the former mayor approved the plan without allowing a debate within the municipal council.
“No studies were conducted by the former mayor to change the zoning of Dalhamieh,” Chadi Boustany said.
“The majority of the municipal council had voted against the rezoning and the mayor said he was the person who is in charge and can make the decision.”
Opponents of the former mayor claim that rezoning Dalhamieh would negatively impact the economy and the nature reserve, and would result in a population expansion, causing “demographic change” that the village would be unable to cope with.
Members of the electoral list led by the former mayor declined to comment on the accusations swirling around the campaign, expressing fear that any further tensions could lead to a cancelation of the polls.
Sources close to George Boustany angrily refuted the allegations against the former mayor.
“Ali Tajeddine bought a company, he did not buy the land,” a source said. “Robert Mouawad sold his company three years ago, and he [the mayor] was able to negotiate with Ali Tajeddine to keep one-third of Dalhamieh as a nature reserve, which will remain the property of the municipality.”
Dalhamieh is only one area of Debbieh that has seen a recent rise in development projects that has transformed the village into a commercial and residential hub in Iqlim al-Kharroub.
A number of displaced people from the town returned in the early 1990s, when Debbieh was predominantly Maronite, but only a minority lives there on a permanent basis.
Nearly 15,000 new residents have since arrived from various parts of the country and filled the constantly expanding residential projects. The Lebanese University and the Beirut Arab University have opened campuses there, and approximately 5,000 students attend classes throughout the academic year.
“Demographic change has already occurred. I am only concerned about how I can best live in my village, with everyone,” the source added.
The Boustany family is the town’s largest, and the two competing lists have multiple members from the family, along with representatives of the Azzi and Mitri families.
Fadi Boustany, who is running as an independent, complained that the Dalhamieh project and demographic change were being exploited by rival camps to influence the nearly 1,400 eligible voters ahead of the polls.
“I chose to run as an independent to avoid getting involved in the fighting between rival camps,” he said.
“The municipal council should be concerned with the entire 26km2 [the geographic size of the village]. We cannot only address the needs of the voters,” Fadi Boustany added.
The candidate also denied claims that the former mayor didn’t follow through on a study that dealt with the controversial rezoning.
“I was one of the engineers who were invited by the former mayor to study the plan. Speaking from a technical point of view, there are no irregularities,” Fadi Boustany said.
“A decision could have been made over the zoning issue without the municipal council collapsing. The project in Dalhamieh is progressing and there is little that can be done by the municipality to legally stop it,” he added.
The independent candidate says the municipality should do more to control the growing number of commercial and residential projects in the village by monitoring the construction process, particularly from the beginning.
“All the municipality can do is make sure that the right permits are filled out prior to the building process and that proper infrastructure is built to accommodate all of the residents,” he added.
Fadi Boustany said he hopes that the new municipal council will focus more on local development as opposed to getting dragged into disputes over who supposedly enjoys political backing, and the pecking order of the various families.
“The municipality has to provide guidance for the residents and show them how they can invest in their land as opposed to selling it for a cheap price,” Fadi Boustany said. “I am a success story. I opened up an [engineering] office in the village and have been doing very well.”
He said the fighting between rival camps was caused by the absence of criteria for candidates who run in municipal elections.
“There are no standards for candidates, so voters are left to vote along family and political lines. If the candidates had the skills based on standards needed to fulfill their responsibilities, we would not be having by-elections this Sunday.”