The planned expansion of an Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) military training area in South Estonia has led one expat, who owns a property in the affected area, to highlight the poor handling of the entire planning procedure by the Ministry of Defense and related agencies, daily Eesti Päevaleht (EPL) reports.
The full extent of plans to virtually triple the area of the current Nursipalu training zone, used by both EDF and NATO allied personnel and equipment and necessitated by the changed security situation, came to light a month ago.
The Nursipalu training area lies in Võru County County, around 70km south of Tartu, and the Antsla and Rõuge rural municipalities and their residents will be most affected by the planned enlargement.
As for property owners, in Estonia generally, outside the cities, EPL reports (link in Estonian), it is often difficult to recoup renovation costs put into a home, and since the home in question here – owned by U.S. long-term expat Stewart Johnson – is not among the 21 the Estonian state is subjecting to a forced sale, he may not receive compensation in that way.
Johnson (pictured), 46, and most well-known for his work as a standup comic, has been living in Estonia since the late '90s and purchased the property in 2003, when it was little more than an empty shell; he says he has been improving it extensively ever since, residing there four to five months in a year.
The Nursipalu military training zone had been decommissioned at that point but, in its current dimensions, was recommissioned by government order in 2008 (link in Estonian).
While Johnson's property still remains outside the planned, expanded zone, it is still in a restricted zone and near enough to hear what EPL calls "sudden and unexpected" blasts from live-firing and other military exercises in progress.
Although it is not even clear yet how those homeowners whose real estate does lie directly inside the expanded zone, and is therefore condemned, will be compensated, Johnson, who says he has plowed more money into the property and its improvement than he can remember, may not be reimbursed by the state whatsoever.
Ministry of Defense planning and environmental policy chief Kadri Auväärt told EPL an "incentive fee" can be paid to owners in cases where acquiring the plot of land is in the public interest, though it is not clear yet whether Johnson's plot qualifies in that sense, or to what extent its value will be diminished below market price level in any case, due to noise pollution and other factors.
The Center For Defense Investment (RKK), which is under the ministry's remit, says it actually does not know how many households are in the new, restricted zone, ie. near, but not inside, the expanded area, while Tambet Tõnisson, head of the RKK's state assets department, told the daily that: "We lack the knowledge to be able to say that banks in some way look down on restricted zones, and treat loan applicants in a specific way as a result."
Johnson told EPL that: "When the Nursipalu training ground first arrived, locals complained about the noise, but the Ministry of Defense's attitude was then one of 'get used to it,'" adding that this attitude seems to still be the case – as evidenced by the dismissive way in which the ministry has treated local residents and the lack of transparency over the planning process and its consequences.
Johnson, who attended a recent town hall meeting on the issue chaired by Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur (Reform), told EPL that: "Had I known that there were plans to build a training area here, I would not have bought the property back in 2003," adding that he has had difficulty sleeping and experienced a loss of appetite over the issue.
A couple of months ago, he had sent dozens of letters, in Estonian, to the defense ministry, which have all gone unanswered – even the recent Pevkur-chaired meeting initially excluded local residents, EPL reports.
At present, the restricted zone, up to 2,000m from the training area's boundary, encompasses the existing military sector; EPL reports that few properties lying in or near this area can be found for sale on the kv.ee real estate portal.
The original EPL piece (in Estonian) is here.
The current EDF training area at Nursipalu is around 3,000ha in size, and under the plans would be tripled in area to over 9,000ha.
The EDF had originally requested an even larger expansion than that. The expanded facility is also needed, it is argued, to host NATO personnel and their equipment – including heavy tanks and MLRS systems – such as the British, French and Danish contingents based at Tapa.
Local residents recently questioned the drawing of the new boundaries, daily Postimees reported (link in Estonian), noting that there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the borders in some cases, asking whether favorable treatment was behind it. In some cases, properties outside the boundary and the restricted zone would still be in firing range of some of the weaponry due to be used at Nursipalu.
The map below shows the existing Nursipalu training area (in red) compared with the proposed, expanded area (yellow).
Correction: An earlier version of this article had stated the Nursipalu training area was functioning as such in 2003. In fact, while the area had been used for military activities in the past, it was in abeyance at that point in time, and was recommissioned by the Estonian government for EDF use in 2008.
Editor: Andrew Whyte
Source: EPL, Postimees