Audit Office: Freedom to roam impeded by local governments' apathy

Blocked access to the Bay of Paslepa in Noarootsi Parish, western Estonia (National Audit Office)
12/17/2015 1:57 PM
Category: Environment

The National Audit Office is of the opinion that local governments should be more active in ensuring everyone’s right to access the sea, lakes or rivers for recreation and exercise, and make sure that there are signs that point people who are unfamiliar with the local conditions in the right direction.

In Estonia, the freedom to roam prohibits land owners from blocking access to bodies of water that are public or have been designated for public use. However, the freedom to roam in the surroundings of public water bodies is often in conflict with private interests, which means that people cannot access and use water bodies, as the paths leading to them have been closed or blocked without authorization. The local government should help in such situations but often fail to do so, an audit found.

The National Audit Office audited 15 local governments from different regions of Estonia, reviewing access routes and passages to water bodies in one or several regions in their territories.

The audit revealed that the majority of local governments lack the will to exercise supervision of their territories to the required extent or to carry out proceedings against offenders in the manner required by law. That includes discussions with the local community to find the roads and paths that visitors can use to access water bodies, and exercising supervision to ensure that land owners do not obstruct access to the shores.

However, according to the audit, two-thirds of the audited authorities had not done anything about the land owners who had restricted the freedom to roam. “The obstacle here is not so much the complexity of proceedings, but the unwillingness of the local governments to find themselves in conflict with (influential) members of the local community,” the Audit Office said in a statement.

“The interests of the smaller community living near the shore do not always coincide with the broader public interest, and local governments prefer to proceed from the interests of the community living on the shore. Local governments also admitted that they do not have enough skills to carry out proceedings. They have also pinned their hopes on the Environmental Inspectorate, which has similar supervision competencies. However, it was revealed that offenses often continue even after the inspectorate gets involved,” the auditors added.

The National Audit Office also found that in most of the audited regions, there was not a single road or path to a water body that belonged fully to the local government. Public use of private roads or paths requires an agreement between the local government and the owner. The reasons why the roads and paths belong to private owners instead of the local government largely date back to the start of the reorganization of land relations required for restoring the independence of Estonia.

In the early 1990s, the Land Board encouraged local governments to include smaller roads and paths in the composition of properties that went to private owners in the course of the restitution or privatization of land. The choices made during the land reform have led to the situation in Estonia where most of the roads and paths that lead to water bodies belong to private owners, many of whom are opposed to their use by the general public, as they prefer privacy.

The National Audit Office advised local governments to give more attention to the accessibility of shore paths and to put up more signs to mark public access routes to beaches and shores, and parking facilities, as well as to enter into the required road and path use agreements with land owners to solve these problems.

Meremõisa: no access to the beach (Photo: National Audit Office).

M. Oll

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