Fears for city estate’s future

A fire last month on the edge of the Syngrou Estate in Amarousion (Maroussi), northern Athens, came in the midst of a dispute between the municipality and groups of local residents who are concerned at what they say is a plan by the authorities to change the character of the estate, which is classified as forestland. The estate is open free of charge from dawn to dusk to the public, who are free to explore 97 hectares of classic Attic landscape that is much the same as it was when Iphigenia Syngrou bequeathed it in her will 80 years ago for the purpose of «training good farmers and gardeners.» Today, this is being done by offering seminars for the public on winemaking, gardening, irrigation methods, organic farming, forestry, plant conservation and protection, vegetable farming, garden design and beekeeping. Around 70 hectares of the estate are forest, while 20 hectares are given over to agricultural activities such as orchards. The remainder consists of buildings, including the former owners’ villa. Officials at the estate, which is administered by the Agronomic Science Institute (IGE), monitored and funded by the Agriculture Ministry, claim that no approval can be given to any plan to change the use of the land because of the terms of the will. Ketty Sereni-Sbyrounia, who is deputizing for the estate’s director, told Kathimerini English Edition that work is being done to promote conservation of the forest, such as improving the irrigation network, clearing dry brush and making firebreaks, refurbishing the greenhouses and replacing damaged almond orchards. Yet locals say that «program contracts» have been drawn up by the local municipalities of Maroussi, Kifissia and Melissia with the IGE to fund various development projects within the estate. They claim these contracts are unconstitutional and illegal. In a recent announcement, architect Pavlos Raftpoulos, president of the Kifissia Protection Society, expressed concern that of the 5.9 million euros budgeted for these plans, only 5 percent of this amount was earmarked for preserving the forest. The rest is for renovating buildings and other construction projects. The society is also concerned about reports of plans for a cafe on the estate and the opening of public roads across its grounds. Earlier in July, an Athens court accepted an injunction called for by the Friends of Syngrou Forest and other local groups against Maroussi City Hall for its plan to rent out 12.8 hectares to an investor wanting to build a theme park on the neighboring Karella property. The court’s ruling was based on the absence of an environmental impact study, and also on evidence that 10 of the 12.8 hectares in question are classified as forestland. The court, invoking Article 24 of the Constitution, ruled that the plans would «lead to an unacceptable deterioration of the ecosystem and the living standards of the residents of Amarousion.» «What is interesting is that a fire started on the Karella property right after the ruling on the court order,» said the society’s announcement. «This particular part of the property is pine forest. Whoever tries to set fire to it wants to have it declassified as forest,» Amaryllis Deliyianni, a member of the society told Kathimerini recently. «Yet even if it wasn’t arson, the town hall’s complete indifference to clearing and protecting it from fire makes it equally guilty,» she said. Kathimerini English Edition made repeated calls to Maroussi City Hall, but no officials were available for comment. The Kifissia Protection Society says that all that is needed on the estate is the exploitation of its underground water reserves, some reforestation, a forested barrier along the bordÆer with Kifissias Avenue and proper rainwater drainage. They say anything else is not only superfluous but would destroy the purpose for which it was created. The society refers to a study by M. Venieris proposing three forms of improvement, such as adapting the education program to modern needs, including specialized training, for example in the design of urban green spaces, as well as the existing short-term programs for the public, and the creation of a Mediterranean flora biotope including a botanical garden. As for its use by the public, the study emphasizes the estate’s value as a way of «escaping the city within the city»; providing recreation and relaxation within a forest and farming environment, where there are also opportunities to learn about the environment, vegetation, atmospheric pollution and climatic conditions. Controversy over the use of the forest is not new. In July 2001, Synaspismos Left Coalition leader Nikos Constantopoulos made the following reference to it: «As far as we are concerned, the forest should be kept as it is now, as provided for by the terms of the will that established the foundation, which is the conservation of Greek and Mediterranean flora which are not to be replaced by the tropical plants provided for in the grandiose plans by the mayor of Amarousion,» he said «The Syngrou forest is beautiful enough without laser beams and other lights; let’s leave it as it is,» he added. The forest is indeed beautiful. To the right of the main entrance on Kifissias Avenue in Maroussi are the offices in charming old buildings around an enclosed garden. Narrow roads meander through the park (no traffic is allowed except for staff vehicles) under age-old trees, mostly huge Aleppo pines and cypress trees, with open meadows throughout. It is unspoiled countryside, where people can forget for a while that they are near the center of the capital city. As more and more land in and around the city is taken over for «development,» it provides an oasis that would be a pity to spoil with asphalt and concrete. Although seemingly untouched, the forest is patrolled and fire trucks are always on standby on the site. Agronomic Research Institute, tel 210.801.1146/808.2496. Get there by metro on Line 1 (ISAP) to Maroussi or KAT, by bus Nos. 550, A7, B7, or E7 along Kifissias Avenue. By car from Athens, turn right through the entrance gate right at the KAT lights on Kifissias Avenue. Parking is available.