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CA allows giant mall to push Sky Park project in Baguio

By: - Correspondent / @kquitasolINQ
/ 12:14 AM January 20, 2015

BAGUIO CITY—The Court of Appeals (CA) has allowed mall giant SM to proceed with its Sky Park project in its shopping mall here, three years after earning the scorn of a group of city residents who sued to protect 182 pine and alnus trees that stand in the way of the establishment’s expansion.

Last week, SM decided to cut 60 of the 182 trees at a section of the mall compound on Luneta Hill, after obtaining a favorable ruling from the CA Special Ninth Division on Dec. 12.

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The ruling said the Cordillera Global Network, the Cordillera Peoples Alliance, environmental organizations and residents including children, had failed to prove that cutting these trees would bring “irreparable” harm to the local environment, as well as to the city’s heritage.

They “failed to present clear and convincing evidence… to show that the issuance of the amended ECC (environmental compliance certificate), the building permit [issued for the mall’s expansion], and the tree-cutting and earth-balling permits were tainted with irregularity,” it said.

Lawyers of the groups that sued SM had yet to issue a statement, but sources said they might elevate the decision to the Supreme Court.

Outside the mall on Sunday, a handful of protesters carrying streamers, banners and black balloons, expressed outrage at the trees’ cutting. Posts on social media have also blamed the courts, government agencies and the media for the fate of the trees.

“This court commends appellants for their courageous efforts to safeguard and maintain the ecological balance of Baguio City. Indeed, this court recognizes the utmost importance of protecting the environment,” the CA said in its 31-page decision.

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

The division, composed of Associate Justices Magdangal de Leon, Stephen Cruz and Zenaida Galapate-Laguilles, affirmed a Dec. 3, 2012 ruling of the late Baguio Regional Trial Court Judge Antonio Esteves, which reached the same conclusion.

Esteves had issued a temporary environmental protection order (Tepo) over the trees on April 10, 2012. The Tepo was lifted when he issued the ruling.

The CA agreed with Esteves’ conclusion that cutting the trees would bring “no hazardous effect on the health of the people of Baguio … because the removal [of the trees] will be compensated by the green building [which SM intends to put up], the 2,000 trees already planted in Busol watershed and 30,000 more trees that will be planted within the next three years [reckoning from 2012],” as established by an expert witness.

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Paquito Moreno, Department of Environment and Natural Resources Cordillera regional executive director, said SM applied for a new tree cutting permit on Jan. 4. Mayor Mauricio Domogan confirmed that the city government granted the permit to the company.

Moreno said the agency’s Environmental Management Bureau issued an amended ECC to SM on Dec. 17.

SM deposited a P6-million bond to the city government as it undertakes a reforestation plan involving 500,000 trees to replace the trees it cut, he said. Its officials said the company had earlier relocated 47 trees on the same property, before they were stopped by the Tepo.

Under its SM expansion project, the green building has been described by the company in its statement as a Sky Park featuring “green walls consisting of live plants [to] help improve air quality.”

The expanded mall building would also have a sewerage treatment plant, a basement rainwater catchment tank and 652 new parking spaces that, it said, would help decongest traffic on Upper Session Road.

“SM mall in Baguio has secured the final approval and necessary permits for this project from the pertinent agencies. Prior to this, inputs from various community groups have been gathered and considered,” the statement said. With a report from Vincent Cabreza and Jhoanna Marie Buenaobra, Inquirer Northern Luzon

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