The government on Thursday approved a bill to expand the Nursipalu Training Area in expedited procedure and will be sending it to the Riigikogu. Local governments are disappointed in the government's handling of involvement.
The government's decision to expand the training grounds at Nursipalu as a national defense exception will suspend the area's previous detailed plan until a new plan is approved. The bill obligates the central government or the local government council to initiate an amendment of the current plan inside one year.
Compensation for the considerable nuisance the expansion constitutes for local governments will be laid out in a separate piece of draft legislation.
"This legislative package makes it possible to develop the training area in simplified planning procedure, following narrow national defense interests," Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (Reform) said during Thursday's government press conference.
Pevkur added that this does not mean the government will be shirking the planning process, and that Natura and other environmental effects assessments will take place simultaneously.
"This adds expediency and makes it possible for the government to approve the training area [expansion]," the minister remarked.
Pevkur hopes the Riigikogu can approve the necessary amendments before Midsummer Day.
"We have already launched preliminary Natura evaluations, which should be completed by late June or early July. Once the Natura preliminary assessment is in and its conclusion is that the government can order the expansion, the corresponding bill will follow in July and be put up for public debate. Once the involvement process is done, we could come to the government order in September," the defense minister told journalists.
Pevkur said that the government and the Environmental Board are busy taking inventory of great grouse habitats inside the government's area of interest and ten square kilometers beyond it. The government will also commission an overview of eagles, black stork and chicken hawk habitats.
A noise levels modelling will also be carried out to serve as the basis for preparation of the training area's information materials.
Pevkur said that the government will soon discuss compensation measures. "We have put together a package at the ministry, we'll try to negotiate it with our coalition partners and bring it to the government," he said.
The defense minister said that compensation measures will likely come in three tiers. "The first covers properties to be acquired from their owners. The second tier concerns the government regulation for permanent compensation for local governments the territories of which host training areas. Thirdly, we will propose a separate so-called creation payment package for the city of Võru and the Võru, Antsla and Rõuge municipalities, which we will try to pay over several years. Fourthly, we will try to work with Kredex for a special noise reduction measure where people can use co-financing from the agency to, for instance, replace their windows," Pevkur said.
Local governments want to be involved
The Association of Estonian Cities and Municipalities is withholding its approval for the bill. Director Veikko Luhalaid told ERR that the association wasn't even included in the list of organizations expected to provide feedback.
Luhalaid said that everything that pertains to local government tasks, rights, obligations and local affairs must pass through the organization, while the association wasn't even consulted initially. We happened upon the bill in the draft legislation information system and asked to be included and given extra time to shape a position."
He said that while the organization was eventually included, it was given until May 3 to respond, which would by then have left it just two days in which to provide feedback. "Naturally, it is impossible to get the input of all 79 local governments in just two days," Luhalaid remarked.
"This is not a nice way to go about these things on the part of the new government," Luhalaid said.
The association also finds that the bill makes it clear effects for local governments have not been analyzed. Luhalaid said that because local governments must still draw up detailed plans, despite the government's expedited proceedings, it remains unclear how they will be compensated for relevant expenses.
Luhalaid said he hopes the association and local governments will get a bigger say in the parliament.
Rõuge Municipality mayor: It is abnormal for people to have to fight for a seat at the table
Rõuge Municipality Mayor Britt Vahter told ERR that the government's approval of the bill happened in the conditions of waning local level involvement.
"If we understand by involvement local governments and interest groups' being consulted and given a seat at the table, no such opportunity has been offered. Rather, we are seeing involvement becoming less," Vahter said.
She said that expanding the Nursipalu Training Area is a decision of major significance for Võru County and Rõuge Municipality, meaning that the sides should be given more say.
The municipality mayor pointed out that both local governments and residents have rather learned of developments via the media or when requesting information themselves. And that this does not constitute involvement but rather being informed.
"It is not normal when people have to fight their way to the negotiating table and make themselves visible through protests."
"Everyone understands the urgency of the matter and that national defense is involved, while people's trust in their government is also a matter of security. Therefore, we very much hope the rest of the process will see more involvement and participation," Vahter said, adding that local governments want to know what is being discussed, as well as the basis and workings of compensation measures.
Vahter said that the government's handling of the Nursipalu topic has crossed the line and gotten to a point where the locals are split and in need of conciliation.
She said that the effects of the expansion have not been evaluated, which requires talking to local residents.
The government wants to expand the existing Nursipalu Training Area in the southern Võru County from 3,000 hectares to 9,000 hectares, which will directly affect 21 properties.
Editor: Marcus Turovski