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Court clears SM expansion project in Baguio

Environmental case dismissed due to lack of merit
/ 10:30 PM January 19, 2015

THE SM group has obtained legal clearance from the Court of Appeals (CA) to pursue the expansion of its shopping complex in Baguio, a hotly debated project in the summer capital as it involved tree-cutting and earth-balling activities.

In a ruling dated Dec. 15 and promulgated early this month, the appellate court affirmed an earlier ruling of the Regional Trial Court dismissing the environmental cases against SM and the lifting of the Temporary Environmental Protection Order (Tepo).

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This is seen paving the way for the SM group to pursue its Sky Park project in Baguio City.

The case was filed by the Cordillera Global Network and a number of local complainants who had wanted regulators to revoke the permit to undertake tree-cutting and earth balling activities in the area. They also sought the revocation of the building permit and environmental compliance certificate (ECC) granted to the project.

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Apart from SM Investments Corp., SM Prime and SM Shopping Center Management Corp., the chiefs of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Environmental Management Bureau, DENR-Cordillera Administrative Region and Department of Public Works and Highways were sued by the complainants, whose case was, however, dismissed by the CA for lack of merit.

In a 33-page ruling, the CA said it was not convinced that the defendants had failed to exhaust administrative remedies or that the permits secured from regulators were unlawful.

“Appellants failed to present clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, to show that issuance of the amended ECC, the building permit and the tree-cutting and earth-balling were tainted with irregularity,” the court said.

Questioned by the complainants was an amendment to the ECC which allowed SM to embark on an expansion program by adding parking levels, retail space and a 1,200 m3/day capacity sewerage treatment plant.  The project is expected to call for the earth-balling or cutting of 182 pine and alnus trees.

In a separate statement, SM Supermalls president Annie Garcia said the project would also feature green facilities to help absorb the impact of climate change: a Sky Park, which will feature green walls consisting of live plants which are seen to improve air quality. She said this would make the mall “both relaxing and enjoyable for the whole family.”

“It will also have a sewerage treatment plant and an underground rainwater catchment tank in the basement. The excess space of catchment tank will provide additional parking space that will help decongest traffic along the Upper Session Road,” Garcia said.

She added that SM mall in Baguio had secured the final approval and necessary permits for this project from concerned agencies.

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“Prior to this, inputs from various community groups have been gathered and considered,” she said, adding that 60 trees were affected by this project.

The CA also said there was no basis to complaints that the tree-cutting and earth-balling permit should be accompanied by a separate ECC, noting that the permit itself was already duly issued by the DENR and was “in reality a compliance with one of the conditions set forth in the amended ECC.”

On the alleged damage to the environment, the CA said the trial court earlier granted the application for the issuance of a Tepo “in order not to make any resolution of the case moot, and not because it found appellants’ evidence stronger than that of appellees.”

“This court commends appellants for their courageous efforts to safeguard and maintain the ecological balance of Baguio City. Indeed, this Court recognized the utmost importance of protecting the environment,” the CA said.

“Clearly, the Supreme Court has called for vigorous prosecution of violators of environmental laws.  However, courts must still be guided by certain fundamental evidentiary rules in resolving environmental cases,” it said.

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TAGS: Baguio, environment, SM, tree cutting
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