Living in Greece

A practical guide to moving, living, working & traveling in Greece, plus musing and misadventures from an American in Athens

The unfairness of Article 24 in the Greek Constitution

Written by Athena D., a Greek-American lawyer practicing in the state of Illinois, USA

Greece is not only one of few countries that does not have a forest registry, but also one of a few countries where the laws of the state make it illegal for any citizen, Greek or foreign, to live in a wooded area or land that has trees on it and often even shrubs. Many Greeks feel that this prohibition is so essential to their national identity that they have not only passed this prohibition onto a variety of laws, but have also included it as a separate article on their Constitution. Being a lawyer in America who purchased a 2-acre wooded lot in Illinois in which I built my house and now live on, just like many of my neighbors, this seems absurd.

Also, in the spirit of Greece’s so-called “forest laws” and the Constitution I mentioned previously, Greeks also universally practice what the U.S. would call “regulatory taking,” that is, the confiscation of private land without paying compensation to the individual by explicitly claiming that a land has trees on it and the owner is prohibited from using his land in any way. Thus, the land is rendered useless to the owner by a forest service decree and only serves the public purpose of providing a natural view for neighbors, travelers, hikers and city dwellers who live at a density of 19,000 inhabitants per square kilometer of land, which ironically was also once forest.

This law not only enjoys considerable public support, but is also currently undergoing considerable expansion to impose “regulatory taking” concerning not just land with trees, but any land that the public deems as having natural beauty or another desirable feature. And the public is being represented by the zoning bureaucrats, an emerging breed of public employees in Greece with their own union.

This is a typical case of what can happen to any land owner in Greece. Somebody — a Greek or foreigner — inherits a piece of land from his parents or purchases a piece of land to someday build a house for himself or his children. At any arbitrary point in time, say close to the time when the owner has finally collected enough money to put his building plans into action, the state (that is, the public) comes and declares the land “a zone of natural beauty,” a designation that prohibits any construction on the land, as well as most other uses, except perhaps occasionally allowing it as pasture for goats. The owner is given no compensation and has no recourse, since this is now a land protected by law. Even if the owner is not hit by zoning condemnation, he must first have his land examined/surveyed by the forest service when he is prepared to eventually build on it. The forest service comes out, and if there are trees on it (sometimes even shrubs are enough) or if trees were grown on it in the past century based on aerial photos, then deems the land as forest land without the possibility to build or use it another way. In this case, goats are not even allowed inhabit it as pasture – I’m serious! There is a law preventing the use of land where trees grow from being used as pasture, including the owner. In this case also, the owner is given no compensation and has no legal recourse against the state or against the whim of the public.

I must stress that I am not speaking about a few isolated cases. This is a routine, ongoing practice of the state. The individual has no recourse against the state if he loses land in this fashion. There are currently more than 400,000 appeals against the state for land confiscated because trees are growing or grew at some point, and thus the public demands that these owners surrender the land as it’s too precious to be left in private hands.

To be fair, in this “steal what you can”

environment, many individuals do the opposite and frivolously stake claim and often acquire title to public land, especially land adjacent to large urban areas where prime property is valuable. However, what is the bigger problem? The few individuals that behave like thieves or a state that has the authority to behave like a thief with impunity? How can individuals be expected to follow the law when the state itself (that is, the public) acts collectively as thieves by taking private land without offering compensation?

National Parks in Greece, for example, are not created by the government buying private land and turning it into a park, as many reading these pages may imagine. National parks in Greece are drawn on a map by a bureaucrat, who represents the public interest, will and whim somewhere in a government office and then publishes it in the Government Gazette as a decree. Basically the decree says, “We have formed a new national park enclosed by the polygon defined by the following GPS coordinates (table follows), and any owner who has land within this area becomes part of the national park and is prevented from using his land in any way…”

Those who have already developed their land must forfeit any future development (i.e. If you want to add a garage to your house on 10 acres, you no longer can).

In a democracy — and Greece is a democracy — the laws of the state normally represent the will of the collective, which would be the public or at least a majority of the public. So when the state operates in a land raiding fashion by confiscating private land, it means that a majority of the public has the same mentality.

There is enough land in Greece for all families to be able to live on one acre or more of land and still keep 95% of the Greek landscape uninhabited; a simple arithmetic calculation shows that. However, Greeks insist on living at a density of 19,000 inhabitants per square kilometer and are adamant about preventing a farmer with 10,000 square meters of forested land from building a 120 square meter house for his son. No wonder so many people are sitting with match in hand, waiting for the right combination of heat, drought and wind.

I wrote this because many hearing this summer’s news about wildfires in Greece and reading these pages, may get the impression that the issue is about a general environmental insensitivity of Greeks. Far from it, it is mostly an issue of property rights and their violation.

In the News

Δείτε το τελικό κείμενο του Π.Δ. για την προστασία του Υμηττού” — Ta Nea

Related posts

Athens afire: Cement and sea, ash and earth
Floges and togas – Greece afire
Ashes to ashes: Six months after the Greek wildfires

All views and rights reserved by the author. Text was copy edited by Kat for grammar, spelling and flow only.
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  Theophilos wrote @ March 5th, 2008 at 06:55

This is an excellent article encapsulating the essence of the land problem in Greece. The tradition of the state acting like the Sultan is of course a direct descendant of more than 400 years of Ottoman rule over this country – and this tradition has resisted all European “streamlining” since 1981, when Greece became a full member of the EEC/EU.

There is no solution at the end of the tunnel. If anything, the government has been adding more irrational restrictions on top of existing ones: see, for example, the rules imposed on building on an island, where the minimum size of the lot has been fixed at 4 stremmas or, roughly, one acre. One acre as the minimum size of the lot for building on most smaller Greek islands is equivalent to demanding that anyone wishing to build a small house on the mainland must possess a small ranch of, say, five acres. This is absurd, to say the least.

Greece, Greeks, and their governments have often completely irrational views of subjects that elsewhere in the world do not constitute bones of contention simply because a long tradition of civic relations, and government action, have defined clearly the rules of conduct. We are, in many ways, still in an Ottoman frame of mind, and Greek bureaucracy is the living creature to prove the point.

In another life in the US, I enjoyed long periods of living on forested land. This is an impossible dream in this country … and, yes, it is one of the many good reasons to re-think whether one should stay in Greece for the rest of his life.

  graffic wrote @ March 11th, 2008 at 19:44

In Spain, the state can “steal” whatever they want. They will offer you some money, but you cannot refuse the offer (sounds like mafia). Well, you can try and appear on TV but you won’t gain much.

At the same time, you can do whatever you want unless the police catch you. Why is this related to forests?

Well, you and the state can start cutting trees from a forest. If you start, the police will come and stop you (arrest you and perhaps send you to jail and/or pay a fine). But what happens if the government issues a local regulation stating, “this is not a forest”?

Then the police won’t stop them from cutting trees. The people have to hire a lawyer and go against the government, and the judge issues an “stop order” in order for the police to stop the government from cutting trees from a forest.

The government will then wait until they receive the official letter. Even if the judge issued the order on Friday and it appears in the newspapers and TV minutes later, the government will wait until they receive the official letter and then “process” it (It can take hours). At that exact moment, they will stop cutting trees.

Then they will only say “Oops! we were wrong, this area was in fact, a forest”. But the damage is done, and what´s more is that area without trees will enter a grey area, where it can be easily declared (by the government) as “building area” because it has no trees.

Even worse is when you cannot stop them (for example, if they want to sell a piece of desert) , and they allow to build a “small” village in the middle of nowhere. That new urban area will need “electricity ” and “water”. Therefore they will change the way of rivers (destroying all the ecosystem ) to feed golf fields and houses.

I forgot to talk about when the state declares an area as “urban,” but months before some friends from the local government bought some land there.

I guess I know why I feel like home here in Greece :P (kidding).

More seriously, if so many people voted for the two main political parties, and both don’t do anything to stop that… perhaps it’s because the people like that :) (I’m talking about Greece, but I could be talking about Spain in the same way).

  David Bramley wrote @ March 24th, 2008 at 17:25

I read this article with great interest. I live in England, born here to a Greek mother 60 years ago. When my mother’s father died, she used her inheritance to buy a plot of land along with 1000 others. This was a syndicated large plot. The land contains no trees and never did but it has been disputed forestry land for more than 40 years. My mother bought this to build a small house to retire to. Needless to say, my mother passed away 2 years ago and my brother and I have inherited the problem. My mother paid for the land and paid taxes to the government for the land. I have started to agitate with my MEP and would welcome any who want to join me to submit their contact information to this site. It is my intention to put up a website to gather data about this constitutional theft.

  Kat wrote @ April 11th, 2008 at 13:54

Anyone wishing to leave their name and details privately can do so. I will not publish your information, but instead pass it to David privately via email.

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