Government gives green light for ‘legalizing’ illegal properties

The last few decades, any talk of reforms for illegally constructed properties made one instantly think of elections. And so it is again with the strategically timed introduction of the Environment Ministry’s new town-planning measures – which will «legalize» properties across the entire country and change existing procedures for issuing construction licenses – in a move that will increase the burden on municipal and prefectural authorities. After months of debate, the government’s executive office reckoned that now was the right time to make public a package of reforms that has been prepared by Minister Vasso Papandreou’s office. The plan was approved during a meeting between Papandreou and Prime Minister Costas Simitis on Monday, while the presentation of the new «town-planning map» – which the government hopes will help it maintain PASOK’s existing hold on its constituencies – is due tomorrow after the cabinet meeting. The basic provisions of the draft legislation include reforms for the swifter settlement of 1 million cases of illegally constructed properties currently listed in town-planning files. Essentially, this is a matter of speeding up the procedures for issuing town-planning studies and town plans. In this way, once the plans have been completed, the owners of properties which lie in areas that the town plan is to deem suitable for residential construction (and not in «common areas,» such as parks) will be able to receive approval of this fact from the municipal authorities. As regards financial penalties, there will be reforms governing payment by those who have already been fined as well as generous discounts – on the basis of «social» criteria – for those to receive municipal approval from now on. Specifically, owners of illegally built properties covering an area of up to 400 square meters (if a first home) or of up to 250 square meters (if a second home) can ask to pay off the fine in 36 monthly installments or at a discount of 40 percent. More favorable discounts are available should the property be the sole residence of the owner and cover up to 120 square meters, if at least one severely disabled person lives in the building, or if the resident is an ethnic Greek from the former Soviet Union. In the latter case, fines can be paid off in 48 monthly installments or at a 50 percent discount. As regards the fines that will continue to be imposed on properties which are not included in the new town plan, they are expected to be severely reduced (by up to 80 percent), again on the basis of «social» criteria. The second part of the draft bill includes changes to the procedures for issuing construction licenses, including their acceleration and the allocation of responsibility for deviations onto the owner and the supervising engineer. In the case of illegal properties, the onus is on the municipal authorities whose responsibility it is to avert «a new generation of illegally built properties.» Otherwise, it will be the municipal authorities who face a fine. The extent to which these authorities will be able to promote town-planning studies and monitor violations remains to be seen. According to Environment and Public Works Ministry officials, the first phase of reforms is expected to bring relief to at least 200,000 owners of illegally built properties, and will also have positive consequences for those wanting to start construction work. However, opposition New Democracy’s Savvas Tsitouridis has characterized the government’s policy as «hope-mongering ahead of the elections.» What will change To be legalized: -Illegally constructed properties that will then be included in the new town plans. – Illegal extensions and the likes on apartments and houses, unless the extension affects the stability of the building. To remain illegal: – Illegally constructed properties in forests, archaeological sites, near streams and beaches and in protected areas of natural beauty. Fines – Reforms for owners of previously illegal properties that have been legalized, allowing them to pay off their fines in 36-48 installments or at a 40-50 percent discount depending on «social» criteria. – Reduction (by up to 80 percent) on fines that will be imposed from now on for illegally constructed properties that are first homes or belong to certain categories of citizens (repatriates, the disabled, large families).

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