By Beting Laygo Dolor i Contributing Editor
The SM Group of Companies may be one of the Philippines’ biggest, most profitable and diversified. But this did not stop the Supreme Court (SC) from taking the cudgels for local residents by blocking their expansion plan in Baguio City.
In its biggest legal defeat yet, the SC last April 10, permanently stopped SM from cutting any more trees for its planned expansion in the City of Pines, long considered the summer capital of the Philippines.
The SM mall in Baguio sits atop Session Road, the primary artery of the city and the place most frequented by tourists.
Sitting en banc, the high tribunal made permanent the temporary restraining order it had issued on March of 2015. That TRO blocked SM from cutting and earth balling trees on Luneta Hill for its planned expansion.
Brian Keith Hosaka, spokesman for SM, said they were not giving up yet, and were planning on filing another environment compliance certificate (ECC).
This will be done “in accordance with existing laws and regulations,” he said.
It was actually a group of Baguio residents who had taken SM to task for its supposed blatant disregard for the environment.
This, after SM had publicized a court resolution approving the expansion.
However, the resolution kept silent in the destruction of age-old trees located in the planned expansion site.
The protesters noted that no mention was made in the publication regarding the cutting of trees.
What angered the protesters was that SM began tree cutting operations at night time, which they compared to a “thief in the night.”
Artists, environmentalists, lawyers, and ordinary residents banded together to secure a temporary environmental protection order back in 2012 but this was ignored when tree-cutting commenced three years later.
This was when the group sought the help of the high tribunal, which then issued a TRO.
After the SC announced that the restraining order had been made permanent, the protesters celebrated their victory.
“The SC spoke today. We won!” said lawyer Cheryl Daytec.
It is not clear what an application for an ECC can do to reverse the SC decision.
SM can no longer appeal the decision, as it was handed down en banc.
At the time of the decision, the expansion of SM Baguio was already in full swing with trees in the area already cut. An official of the mall said that work would continue as they had not received a copy of the SC decision.
Another protester, Gloria Abeo, noted that most of the trees in the site have already been cut down.
“We may have won but we already lost the trees and all,” she said.
For now, they will “see what we could salvage from the ruins,” Abeo added.
The legal battle between the residents of Baguio City on one hand, and SM malls on the other, lasted all of seven years.
While SM malls have been sprouting in every major city in the Philippines, SM Baguio is a little different from most. Unlike the sealed, air-conditioned boxes that is most SM malls, the one in Baguio City has an open air design. This allows fresh air to flow through the entire mall. Power costs are therefore reduced drastically, resulting in a more profitable operation.
With a floor area of more than 100,000 square meters, it is the largest shopping mall in Northern Luzon.
If it opts to abide by the SC ruling and make peace with the Baguio residents, one option that SM can take is to expand vertically rather than horizontally.