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Supreme Court rejects EDF training ground landowner appeal

EDF personnel on a training exercise (photo is illustrative).
EDF personnel on a training exercise (photo is illustrative). Source: mil.ee

The Supreme Court has ruled that a Harju County landowner whose property became part of an Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) training zone without their knowledge or consultation must be overruled, given the public interest. The plaintiff obtained a circuit court part-reversal of the government order initiating the training ground, only to lose these gains on appeal to the Supreme Court.

The training area, at Soodla, 40km east of Tallinn, was constructed first, while planning was filed later; the area is likely also to be used by NATO allied personnel at a time of heightened tensions between the alliance and the Russian Federation.

The Supreme Court also overturned a second-tier Circuit Court decision, by which the landowner's complaint was partly satisfied.

The court did not annul the actual order itself, since the involvement of the owner would not have changed the final outcome, the court said, though it did call the order illegal.

The Supreme Court made two separate decisions on the creation of the training area and the organization of military exercises there.

In the first case the applicant sought the annulment of the government order which had instigated constructing the training ground. The part of the training ground took in land which was belonged to the applicant, but the latter had not been involved in the process of creating the facility nor indeed were they even aware of the state's plans, until three years later, when the state offered to purchase the land from the applicant.

The applicant says the training area significantly reduces their scope in using the land, and has reduced its value.

In the second case, the landowner asked the EDF to ban the use of the training ground for its intended purpose, where this would involve heavy plant, explosives and flares, among other military paraphernalia, and would have curtailed the landowner's right to use the land, in addition to causing noise and disturbance when exercises were in progress.

Supreme Court: Overriding public interests outweigh the interests of individual private owners

However, the Supreme Court has ruled that overriding public interests outweigh the interests of individual private owners in this second case - as the military training on the Soodla training ground takes place in accordance with the law, it is subject to an exemption applying to the EDF on noise pollution.

While the Supreme Court's Administrative Chamber declared the original government order that established the training are illegal, it did not revoke it, adding that that tactical EDF exercises could be conducted there without the creation of either a danger zone or the prior resolution of property issues. According to the court, the government order also provided a legal basis for the noise and movement restrictions which the applicant said disturbed them.

The Supreme Court also overturned the second-tier circuit court decision, by which the landowner's complaint was partly satisfied.

The new areas are needed in the vicinity of the EDF's central polygon, both for EDF units and those of allied forces in Estonia, while the area met the procurement selection criteria better than any other potential site, plus there is no suitable alternative location, it is reported.

Ultimately, while the applicant should have been involved from the earliest stages, the Supreme Court found, any objections at that stage would, also, have been overruled, meaning that this would not have meaningfully altered the final decision.

The land is close to the village of Pillapalu, Harju County, and right in the middle of the Soodla training field.

The original government order dated from 2015, while the EDF started organizing exercises from 2018; the applicant's property can only be accessed via the training area.

Since the original order was made, the NATO Enhanced Forward Presense (eFP) based at Tapa was first announced (in 2016) and then became a reality (in 2017), meaning around a thousand or more U.K. and also French, Danish and Belgian personnel are or have been in Estonia, replete with equipment including heavy tanks and tracked armored vehicles. Other NATO exercises involving U.S. personnel focused on Estonia and the Baltic States have frequently occurred on land, sea and air in recent years also.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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