The curse of the 0.4-hectare rule

Driving along the mountain roads of Parnassus, you have to watch out for cement trucks and luxury jeeps searching the forest for investment opportunities. The object of their desire is about 0.4 hectares in the forest. According to the law, which has proved to be inadequate, an 0.4-hectare plot of land outside a built-up area can be built on and 10 percent of it, 400 square meters, can be used for a house. At the same time, the law has thinned out the forest because it allows 0.4-hectare plots of land to become housing plots as long as they are in a clearing. The result is a massive hunt for plots of land of that size close to or inside the forest. «It’s true that there is growing pressure to build on Parnassus,» Amphissa forestry official Giorgos Katsarelis told Kathimerini. That forestry authority is responsible for designating which land is forest on Parnassus and so holds the key to building permits. But Katsarelis insists that there is no illegal activity. «The forest is not being cut down, but houses can be built on some old fields if they have been ‘saved;’ those are not forest areas,» he said. What does the law deem to be forest? «If more than 15 percent of an area is covered by trees,» he said. «The new law, 3208, stipulates greater tree cover, up to 25 percent, but we haven’t implemented it because it is being reviewed by the Council of State. If the aerial photographs of 1945 show that an area of 0.4 hectares was a field then and now has less than 15 percent tree cover, then it can be built on.» In the past five years the Amphissa forestry authority has issued 659 designation documents relating to 413 hectares. Of those documents, 335 designated non-forest areas, releasing 200 hectares for building. That means 200,000 square meters of housing, enough for around 1,000 maisonettes. Katasarelis points out that all this is legal. «Surveys are done; we do on-site inspections and post our decision in a public place and publish it the newspaper,» he said. «Any citizen has the right to object within the space of two months. If there is an objection the matter is referred to a primary and a secondary committee.» The Amphissa forestry official does not deny that trees are cut down. «If a plot of land is deemed not to be forested, the owner can cut down five or six trees, firs, pines, whatever is there,» he said. But trees are not only felled after the permit to build is issued. Residents allege that trees are cut down before the on-site inspection, just to reduce the percentage of tree cover. When a 0.4-hectare plot of land can be the subject of rises in such activities, what happens when the land measures 3,900 square meters? How much does it cost to round it off? With the price of land what it is, who would not consider a bribe? Some owners collude with each other to make the plot up to 0.4 hectares. In such cases, the right to build 400 square meters is divided between the two, enough for two maisonettes, which, once additions and basements have been built, often exceed the limit. It is not simple holiday houses or secondary family domiciles that are flourishing on Parnassus. Large companies have taken over the mountain and are building identical houses, chiefly maisonettes, often to designs from Northern and Central Europe rather than to traditional local designs. In some place high, impenetrable fences divide up the forest. Villages built by companies and with names like Casablanca are filling up the forest around the protected core of the Parnassus National Park. Unfortunately almost nobody speaks out about this. Some residents are afraid, while others believe they stand to benefit from the situation because they can sell land at high prices. They think that since their neighbor has done so, they might as well too. Of course, the outcome is that the area will be downgraded in the long term. Every group of houses makes demands for roads, water, electricity, sewerage and trash collection. «They are starting to destroy the place,» says another resident. «The E4 mountain track, for example, has been widened out like a road and in some parts concrete has been laid to serve the needs of some owners.»