Local governments should be more active in ensuring people’s right to access beaches and water bodies

Toomas Mattson | 12/17/2015 | 9:00 AM

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TALLINN, 17 December 2015 – The National Audit Office is of the opinion that local governments should be more active in ensuring everyone’s right to access the sea, lakes or rivers for recreation and exercise, and make sure that there are signs that point people who are unfamiliar with the local conditions in the right direction.

The freedom to roam in the surroundings of public water bodies is often in conflict with private interests, which means that people cannot access water bodies or roam on their shores, as the paths leading to them have been closed or blocked without authorisation. The local government should help in such situations and, as a result of discussions with the local community, find the roads and paths that visitors can use to access water bodies, and exercise supervision to ensure that land owners do not obstruct access to the shores.

The National Audit Office analysed access to water bodies and the possibilities of roaming on their shores in 15 local governments, which included local governments from different regions of Estonia and water bodies the access to which is in major public interest. The audit revealed that the majority of local governments lack the will to exercise supervision of their territories to the required extent or to carry out proceedings against offenders in the manner required by law. Two-thirds of the auditees had not done anything about the land owners who had restricted the freedom to roam in the audited regions, even though the National Audit Office is convinced that there is sufficient reason to do so. The obstacle here is not so much the complexity of proceedings, but the unwillingness of the local governments to find themselves in conflict with (influential) members of the local community.

The interests of the smaller community living near the shore do not always coincide with the broader public interest, and local governments prefer to proceed from the interests of the community living on the shore. Local governments also admitted that they do not have enough skills to carry out proceedings. They have also pinned their hopes on the Environmental Inspectorate, which has similar supervision competencies.

However, the audit revealed that in many cases, offences continued even after the Environmental Inspectorate had supervised the situation. One of the reasons is that the Environmental Inspectorate does not carry out sufficient follow-up supervision. Cooperation between the Environmental Inspectorate and the local governments is also not working. They do not inform each other about proceedings regarding the offences committed on shore paths and their statuses.

The National Audit Office also found that in most of the audited regions, there was not a single road or path to a water body that belonged fully to the local government. Public use of private roads or paths requires an agreement between the local government and the owner. The reasons why the roads and paths belong to private owners instead of the local government largely date back to the start of the reorganisation of land relations required for restoring the independence of the Republic of Estonia. In the early 1990s, the Land Board encouraged local governments to include smaller roads and paths in the composition of properties that went to private owners in the course of the restitution or privatisation of land. The choices made during the land reform have led to the situation in Estonia where most of the roads and paths that lead to water bodies belong to private owners, many of whom are opposed to their use by the general public, as they prefer privacy.

The National Audit Office advised local governments to give more attention to the accessibility of shore paths and to put up more signs to mark public access routes to beaches and shores, and parking facilities. They should also enter into the required road and path use agreements with land owners. The National Audit Office advised the Environmental Inspectorate to cooperate more with local governments and carry out follow-up inspections to ensure offences have stopped.

Both local governments and the Environmental Inspectorate agreed with the recommendations made by the National Audit Office and promised to take them on board in the organisation of their work.

Auditor General Alar Karis commended on the results of the audit:

Every summer, the papers report about cases where someone has installed an unauthorised no entry sign on a path leading to a water body, blocked the path with a barrier or turned a public shore into a private beach. And yet, access to the sea, lakes or rivers and the freedom to roam there are everyone’s fundamental rights. So why are we often unable to exercise these rights?

Private and public interests clash on paths that run along beaches and shores. Public interest means people’s desire to get to the shore or beach, whether to swim, fish or just walk by the sea. Private interest, however, means the desire the of the land owner to protect their privacy. The local government should help in such situations and, as a result of discussions with the local community, should define the roads and paths that visitors can use to access water bodies and where land owners cannot restrict the freedom to roam. It would also help visitors from further away if these roads and paths were marked with information boards or signs, which also make clear whether the water body can be accessed by foot or vehicle, and where the vehicle can be parked without disturbing others. Of course, signs and posters do not help if there is no good upbringing, which also includes the understanding that roaming on private land does not necessarily mean invading someone else’s yard.

The audited local governments and the Environmental Inspectorate also shared these principles in the cause of the audit and hopefully, they will soon be taking steps to allow all of us to exercise our fundamental rights better than before and to access beaches and shores throughout Estonia without disturbing local residents.

Background

The National Audit Office audited 15 local governments (Alatskivi, Audru, Noarootsi, Sauga, Tähtvere, Vaivara, Haaslava, Keila, Kose, Mustjala, Otepää, Padise, Rannu and Varbla municipalities and Paldiski town), reviewing access routes and passages in one or several regions in their territories. An opinion of the activities of the local governments was given as a result of the audit, which covered the planning of access routes to and passages by water bodies and entry into the relevant agreements, as well as dealing with the private owners who had blocked shore paths. The opinion given to the Environmental Inspectorate did not cover said regions, but concerned a sample of the inspectorate’s proceedings, which had been carried out nationwide from 2012-2014.

 

Toomas Mattson
Head of Communication Service, National Audit Office
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  • Posted: 12/17/2015 9:00 AM
  • Last Update: 12/17/2015 11:22 AM
  • Last Review: 12/17/2015 11:22 AM

Typical signs on roads and paths that lead through private land to shore paths, where everyone has the right to roam

National Audit Office

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