A court on Friday threw out a complaint from representatives of local residents likely to be affected by a planned Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) training area expansion.
The first-tier Tallinn Administrative Court found that the applicants technically lacked even the power to appeal on the matter, the expansion of the Nursipalu training area, in Võru County.
The Meie Nursipalu NGO, a pressure group opposing the expansion, was joined by 19 other private individuals and legal entities in filing the complaint, which requested that the court oblige the government to initiate a special state plan to identify a suitable location for the proposed EDF training area.
Initiating a special plan would be standard practice, but this has been dispensed with due to the expansion being an urgent matter of national security, Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur recently said.
However, the first-tier Tallinn Administrative Court rejected the request on Friday.
Court spokesperson Anneli Vilu said: "With today's order, the court returned the complaint and rejected the applicants' request to apply for preliminary legal protection, which the applicants wanted to use to halt all actions to expand the Nursipalu practice field, until a state special plan is established."
The court argued that the principle of separation of powers does not allow it to block the legislative process or make security policy choices on behalf of the government or state.
The court noted that while the government has not been quick enough in resolving the situation, it is not dormant at present, either.
In principle, ERR reports, it is not forbidden to submit a bill to amend the law if there are deficiencies in the current law. Such a bill has not been filed during the hearing, to influence its outcome, however.
Tallinn Administrative Court also noted that the activities claimed by the applicants needed for the construction of the practice field (tree-felling and clearing, construction of access roads, etc.) can all be challenged separately at administrative court level, as these all require a permit.
In its ruling, the court also referred to a bill currently under process at the Riigikogu, which provides for the amendment of current law in such a way that, instead of state initiating a special plan, a time-consuming procedure, a national defense exemption procedure could be fast-tracked, in the case of the EDF and Defense League (Kaitseliit), and in exceptional cases.
The first-tier court pointed out that this bill's explanatory memorandum states that this relates to the rapidly changing security situation and that the existing training grounds do not allow for training in accordance with these changed conditions, including their being inadequate to host weapons systems currently in use by both the EDF and NATO allies.
The court also pointed out that the case does not show any prior application to the Government of the Republic to initiate a special state plan on the part of the complainants, nor any governmental refusal to do so, which would be a prerequisite for applying to the court.
The administrative court also noted that even if the complainants had done so, they do not have the substantive right to initiate a special state plan themselves. In the absence of such a right, the court cannot recognize the appellants' right to appeal or process the appeal on its merits alone.
Therefore, according to the court, the applicants clearly do not have the right to appeal on the matter.
The court outlined to the applicants that the current bill provides for the government's decision to be made via open procedure, whereby the procedural rights stipulated in the Administrative Procedure Act would be guaranteed, while there is also the option of challenging the decision in court.
The bill at the Riigikogu also creates a separate procedure for a Natura protected area assessment, which until now has only been viable within the framework of environmental impact assessment and strategic environmental impact assessment.
The Tallinn Administrative Court ruling has not yet entered into force, and can be challenged at the Tallinn Circuit Court, within 15 days.
On May 22, the NGO Meie Nursipalu and the other complainants filed their appeal with the Tallinn Administrative Court (link in Estonian), requesting preliminary legal protection, something which seems to be en vogue in Estonia at the moment, in order to halt all ongoing activities related to the expansion of the Nursipalu training area.
The training area would roughly triple in size from its current dimensions of 3,000ha, once the expansion work was complete. Around 21 householders with property inside the earmarked zone will be subject to a forced sale by the state, while four local authorities will be compensated to the tune of €10 million in total.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mait Ots