Legal loopholes help in turning burnt forests into building plots

Every time an expanse of forest goes up in flames and is then classified as land for reforestation, several hectares often manage to slip through the loopholes in the law and become building plots. People don’t need much land on which to build something. Since the aim is to build a house in the forest, no one objects to having the land reforested. After the last fire, the prime minister announced that the burnt areas would be reforested immediately. No one doubts his good intentions, but if it was that easy and straightforward the forests, specifically forested areas in Attica, would not have shrunk so drastically over the last few years as a result of annual fires. They might not have even burnt down. In 1981, the forested area on Mount Pendeli in the Dionysos area was burnt. A year later, in 1982, the prefecture declared the area forest, which meant it had to be reforested. But the order for reforestation – as highlighted in a report by the State Administration inspectors in 2002 – does not seem to operate in relation to the issue for new building permits. The urban planning office in Kapandriti continues to issue building permits for areas classified as forest based on the provisions in a document issued by the then-responsible Department of the Hellenic Ministry for Physical Planning, the Environment and Public Works, according to which the plots located on the margins of the city plan – not within it – do not require a permit from the Forestry Service for building purposes. As a result, the order for reforestation does not appear anywhere. Indeed, after the June 1990 fire, which broke out in the area near the Pendeli quarries, a part of the area burnt down was the same as that in 1982. A decision by the Eastern Attica Prefect (2299/23-9-92) revoked the 1982 reforestation order for 22.5 hectares. The reforestation order was supposedly amended as this section of the forest – 2.25 hectares – had been classified as forestland «by mistake» since it had been included in the extension of the existing town plan of the Building Cooperative in Nea Aeolida in 1979. One might well ask how a piece of land can become an extension of a plan for a select few in a forested area. The fire paved the way for the creation of building plots in the forest. From the burnt area near the Pendeli quarries in 1990, overall 512 hectares were classified as forest land. From this total 14 hectares in the area of Rodopolis Dionysos were exempted for unknown reasons. According to the report by the Forestry Inspection to the Supreme Court Prosecutor (55696/1559/6-3-98) «an area of burnt forest was removed without being classified forest land and without justification from the issuing authority. In this area luxurious houses are being built, as was revealed after the on-site examination.» Up until 1994, 31 building permits had been issued for this area. In 1999, following action taken by the Dionysos Environmental and Nature Lovers Association, the 140 stremmas that had been exempted in Rodopolis Dionysos were finally reclassified as land for reforestation. The decision was published in the Government Gazette on November 17, 1999, but by then the construction of luxury villas had already started and some had even been completed with the building permits granted during the period when the land had been excluded from the reforestation classification. Under normal circumstances, the administration should have revoked the permits, making the buildings illegal, but no action was taken. The town planning office does not demand confirmation from the Pendeli Forestry Inspection on the forest’s character. The Forestry Inspection in turn does not intervene. After residents went to the Court of Appeal, the building permit was revoked but construction continued. New building permits have been issued for plots of forested land, presumably state owned, which have been bought and sold. All of this has been carried out legally and in effect has canceled out what in practice would seem obvious: Is it possible for a small strip of land to suddenly be available for building in a forested area? Of course there is no logic in both classifying and for reforestation in accordance with the law and also building on it after bypassing the law. The Nea Aeolida Cooperative that is active in the area started out with 271 hectares in the Dionysos area of Pendeli, land that was in the forest. How it got this land is also something that needs examining. Nevertheless, the same cooperative now has over 400 hectares in the Dionysos forest. Given that the law protects the forests, prohibits building on this land which belongs to the state, how is it possible that a few have managed to acquire a villa in the forest or what was formerly a forest which was burnt down one summer? Less burnt land being reforested every year Despite prosecutions, fewer hectares are reforested every year and often, funds earmarked for reforestation at municipalities are used instead by mayors for prettifying works, since the fruits of reforestation bloom after several years. The Forestry Service that is responsible for the Attica region and which could and should manage the forests is too busy handling numerous claims, and is severely short-staffed. For several years, there has been just one forest guard on duty in the areas of Aghios Stefanos, Nea Makri, Nea Erythrea, Maroussi, Dionysos, Drosia, Stamata, Anoixi, Kryoneri, Ekali and Rodopolis. In the 1990s, about 5,000 hectares were reforested annually throughout Greece. In 2003 only 1,162 hectares were reforested and most of them outside Attica where there is clearly less pressure on forests. There is a pressing need to reforest in Attica, even more so since the possibility of natural re-growth is very slight. In some years about 600 hectares were reforested, whereas the figure for 2003 was only 163 hectares. Over the last decade 14,000 hectares have gone up in flames and 7,500 hectares have been classified as land for reforestation but it happened in just 2,200 of them. There are no funds or plans, too few employees, a law that is not enforced in many cases and many who ensure the areas are declassified, using the argument that they were accidentally classified as forested areas and that the area might have been in the forest but is actually «cultivable land» which can easily be turned into a building plot. Unfortunately, quick-fix solutions cannot be applied to forests. When a forest burns down it cannot be easily replaced and many years must elapse before reforestation efforts bear fruit. As was highlighted by the president of the Pan-Hellenic Union of State Forestry Employees, Kostas Besis, in many cases «we prefer natural reforestation but this means the expanse of forest must be protected so that the vegetation can grow back. In addition, natural reforestation can only take place when the forest is not very young and there are seeds (pine nuts) that will sprout again. Every forest does not behave in the same way and does not require the same care and attention for reforestation. «The Aleppo pine which grows in many forests in Greece is a sun-loving plant, that is the young seedlings need light,» Besis said. «If the forest is not cleared, renewal does not take place and the forest cannot create more space for new trees.» In such a case, if the area is protected, reforestation might not be necessary. On the other hand, when a fir tree forest such as the forests of mounts Mainalo and Parnitha burns down, regrowth is very difficult. According to Besis, the fir tree is a shade-loving plant because the young trees need shade to grow and therefore renewal by itself is not possible. «In this case reforestation is necessary,» Besis said. «We plant black pines first so as to create shade so that the fir tree seedlings can grow.» He said a fir tree forest needs over 10 years to grow back.