Fri, Oct 02, 2015 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Demolition and leadership

With a typhoon lashing the nation over the long Mid-Autumn Festival weekend, the demolition of a building owned by Taipei resident Luo Chin-kuang (羅進光), like countless others before it, has already faded from memory — except from Luo’s.

However, Luo’s story is a typical one about the rights of the minority pitted against a majority. It also provides Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) administration with a perfect study of how to make sure that an urban renewal project remains within legal boundaries — which was not the way the city government handled Luo’s situation.

At first, the demolition of Luo’s building seemed like the lawless act of a big developer, bullying an average citizen, but that is not entirely true. His building was on a plot of land that had been zoned for urban renewal, one where the 79 other landowners favored the project. Luo was the sole holdout.

Luo’s steadfast opposition to the project has its roots in his devotion to feng shui; he believes that demolishing his house would bring Taiwan bad luck. The other landowners said their neighborhood was a “slum” and the development project would breathe life into the area.

The dramatic divide between Luo and the others reportedly led to dozens of negotiations that spanned more than two years before the denouement on Friday last week.

The law clearly speaks in favor of the project’s supporters, who together hold more than 80 percent of the land and property rights to the site, thereby meeting the legal requirement to submit a renewal plan to the city government.

However, under Article 36 of the Urban Renewal Act (都市更新條例), contractor Pacific Construction Co’s seemingly sudden decision to demolish Luo’s building appears to contravene the law. The company did not ask the Taipei City Government to intervene after Luo failed to tear down or relocate his building within 30 days of the project’s announcement.

Luo’s talks of the arcane might have created a distance between him and the media, as well as activists campaigning for land justice. However, if he had received enough public attention, his case could have easily evolved into a second Dapu (大埔) incident, with the Taipei City Government taking the role of the big bad wolf that was previously played by the Miaoli County Government.

Miaoli authorities in July last year demolished four houses on land the county had expropriated for an expansion of the Jhunan Science Park. Although the project had the support of 98 percent of landowners, four families were holdouts, and their resistance led to protests by activists and a lawsuit — which the four won.

Demolishing homes is always going to be a controversial issue. It cannot be divided into simple percentages, which hardly represents the actuality, especially when a large number of stakeholders are involved, as with the central government-led land expropriation for the Aerotropolis project in Taoyuan.

However, it would be going overboard to sacrifice the interests of the majority for the rights of the minority in every case. Urban renewal projects call for due public debate over their legitimacy and, if necessary, change in legislature to ensure that disputes stemming from them are settled as fairly as possible.

The Taipei City Government’s refusal to comment on the legality of Pacific Construction’s actions — beyond saying that the firm had a permit for the demolition — could be detrimental to the city’s urban renewal projects, because of the bad example that it sets. Other developers and construction firms might be tempted to copy Pacific Construction’s tactics.

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