Official negligence puts the Morella pine forest at risk

One of the biggest problems facing municipalities in Athens is the lack of open space and greenery. And one of the biggest problems facing those few municipalities that do have green areas is that they might lose them at any moment. In Pefki, for instance, due to a series of ill-judged actions of dubious legality carried out by the local authorities of the day, but also due to the unbelievable negligence of state authorities, part of the Morella pine forest is at risk of being paved over. The issue has become a major issue among mayoral candidates in the upcoming municipal elections. Ownership The story goes back to the 1960s when, for reasons unknown, a 0.9-hectare part of the 3-hectare forest located in the south of Pefki and which belongs to the municipality was included in the town plan. Predictably, people who claimed to own the land in question soon made their appearance and put pressure on officials to allow them to make use of what they said was their property. Acts of negligence by local authorities have since made matters worse. In 1992, when the Morella forest was fenced off, the section in question was not included. A year later, the path to encroachment was opened by what locals and the present mayor allege was the illegal designation of the area as a green space for common use instead of a forest area. When the self-described owners requested the transfer of a building coefficient, the municipality approved it, clearly accepting for the first time that the area belonged to private owners. When a plot of land that is included in the town plan is designated as green area, its owner is entitled to compensation. Thus the so-called owners of the Pefki forest started legal action to claim compensation. And they succeeded. Yiannis Voyiatzakis, head of the Pefki Citizens’ Rally group which is contesting the municipal elections, told Kathimerini, «Just four months ago a court ruling awarded them compensation, thus acknowledging their ownership. «If they are not compensated, they have every right to build on the land.» As Voyiatzakis explained: «For years, no effort has been made to protect the forest, to have it removed from the town plan.» Similar criticisms have directed toward the present municipal authority by another candidate mayor, Yiannis Theodorakopoulos, from the Nea Epochi group. He described the loss of 0.9 hectares of pine forest as «the most serious issue that Pefki has faced in the past 20 years.» State responsibility However, Pefki Mayor Pavlos Kamaras told Kathimerini that «the tragic negligence by the state, namely the Agriculture and Environment ministries,» was to blame for what had happened to the forest. He explained that in 2003, after years or effort, the municipality got confirmation from the Pendeli Forestry Authority that the 0.9-hectare area was forestland. «For the last three years we have been trying unsuccessfully to persuade the state authorities to make a town-planning amendment to remove this piece of land from the town plan. They each toss the ball to each other.» And while the authorities turn a blind eye, the court ruling fortifies the position of those who want to exploit the forestland to which they have gained a title. The emblem of the neighborhood The Morella forest is the emblem of Kato Pefki, which it traverses from north to south. It was bequeathed to the municipality by the Morella-Katsimbalis family. The forest is made up exclusively of 20- to 100-year-old pine trees (pefka), from which the area takes its name. Trails through the forest have been formed over the years through everyday use by the local population as they are natural extensions of the roads that run at right angles to the forest. It is also used as a venue for numerous cultural activities.