“The price should not depend on the category of the land”, says the chairman of the Bulgarian Association of Agricultural Land Owners.
At the moment, the ones who are affected negatively at the most, are the small owners, if deprived of 10 acres of agricultural land, it is impossible for them to buy a corresponding size of land; the Bulgarian Association of Agricultural Land Owners (BAALO), which you are the head of, insists on changing the rules regarding state- forced agricultural land acquisition.
- What is the requested amendment, Mr. Staykov?
- A lot of infrastructure projects have been initiated recently. We, at BAALO, understand the need for such projects and the future benefits arising from them. The routes of the new highways, railways and gas pipelines are quite large, which means that there is also the need for the expropriation of a huge number of private properties. The methodology and prices that are currently being paid as compensation are based on categories and are very much outdated-from 20 to 30 years ago. The prices of agricultural land then, even in the most fertile region of Dobrudja, were below 200 BGN. The benefits payable in case of compulsory land acquisition at the moment, come up to a maximum price of 1200 BGN per acre, payable for agricultural land falling into first category, which is the highest. For agricultural land falling into the tenth category, for example, the price payable will come to about 50 BGN per acre. Therefore, what happens is that in most cases, the financial compensation for expropriated land, does not allow the owner to buy the same amount and quality of land. The process of buying itself, also incurs expenses. In this way, the constitutional rights of each agricultural land owner are violated. Bulgaria is a rule of law country and the owner must be compensated based on a normative basis assuring compensation equal to the land which was expropriated. There is another worrying aspect-one property turns to be part of another property, the category into which it falls is lower, for the owner to prepare all the documents, it is necessary for them to travel to the other side of Bulgaria. Not in all cases the rate category of assessment defined by the state, corresponds to the actual qualities of the land. Sometimes the money that the owner will spend is more than what they will get from the state in the form of compensation. Thus the owner, if they own a small amount of land, is forced to not participate in this process at all as it makes no sense- to give more money than you will receive and on top of that lose your land.
-What should be included in the new methodology rules and regulations for determining benefits?
-We offer a methodology that is not based on categorizing land. For example, the land falling in the lowest categories, where usually the owner is compensated by 50 to 300 BGN/DKA, perennials such as roses, lavender, etc., can be planted. That will bring higher profits compared to the ones which will potentially be gained from owning a higher category of land practicing conventional agriculture. A methodology for fair compensation of owners must be established, taking into account trends in the price increase in Bulgaria. Severance payments are often unjust. In Dobrudja, as we already know, the land prices can go over 2000 BGN. At the same time, the maximum compensation, without any provisions for extra payment, when agricultural land is compulsory expropriated, the highest compensation given is up to 1200 BGN for lands assigned to the first category. The land falling into categories 3 and 4, which is actually most of the cases, the prices are much lower. Therefore, we feel we must alert the public and the authorities about the problem and the need for a new methodology. Prices continue to rise, however, the amount of benefits payable is very low.
-Do you have in mind other possible forms for compensation?
-Yes, what we offer is for the owners to be compensated by the State or by the Municipal Land Fund by giving them agricultural land instead of receiving financial compensation. Even if the owners will not actually work the same land, they will be near the acquired lands. The owner should be given a choice: if they do not wish money as a form of compensation, they can get land instead. If the state allows for such a choice, the owner will be able to obtain just compensation. In this way, the interest of the many Bulgarians who are abroad will be protected as well. So far, agricultural land owners living abroad have no time to react to what is happening. No one would come to Bulgaria from abroad for 1-2-3 months, without knowing what would happen in terms of procedures. At the moment, what happens in reality is that if a case is taken to the courts, all the expenses must be paid by the plaintiff with little chances for the court to rule out a higher compensation price. Not only will the owner lose his land, but he also needs to pay additional fees because he appealed in court.
-Do you believe that changes in easing the procedures and in lowering of fees that owners have to pay are also necessary?
-The state provides for mechanisms for some of the procedures to be carried out only in the conventional way. If an owner has moved to the seaside for example, and he is originally from Vidin, there will be a cost of 300-400 BGN. The owner will invariably have to go back to his hometown for a second time in order to apply for the plan and the tax assessment documents of the land. If it is one acre, for which the owner will receive 500 BGN in compensation, he will have already paid 600 BGN for preliminary expenses. Thus it becomes absolutely pointless for him to receive the money. The idea is for all those costs to be at the expense of the government administration in case of state-forced land acquisition. The introduction of regulatory minimum prices that are in line with market realities is highly necessary. When a private owner's land is taken, he encounters other expenses. In recent years, more and more people are closing buying/selling deals at their actual prices. But we cannot assume that this is a common practice valid for the whole of Bulgaria. In places with tenants of the same land, one time a deal might be closed for 200 BGN per acre, while at another time, a deal can be closed at the price of 1200 or 2000 BGN per acre for the same land. The law allows for that to happen. We cannot control this process but we must also not allow Bulgarians to be afflicted due to gaps in the current legislation.
-Will the largest farmers be in the greatest detriment?
-No, not really, quite the opposite. The small-scale land owners will be the ones deprived the most. They are the ones possessing the least amount of land-on average of 10 to 50 acres. When through land acquisition they are taken 10 acres, they will not be able to recover either will they be able to buy new land. This small income earned previously, will now become even smaller. That is why we want to refer the problem to the state and to the public as well. A new law on agricultural land is now being drafted and in it, new rules and procedures for just compensation must be provided. A new programming period is forthcoming, bringing new projects and newly affected owners. I hope this process is finally regulated in the country because when citizens are protected, the state wins as well.
-Why do you have to explicitly ask for a provision to be included in the law specifying that any construction activities in the vicinity of agricultural lands should begin after harvesting? Has there been a problem in this regard so far?
-When land is used for an infrastructure project, it must then be recultivated. I will give you an example-when "Mini Maritsa-Iztok" mined coal from the land, the minerals are state property, but the land is private. The owner is compensated by a certain amount, but then the land must be recultivated and thus restored. But there are other cases-for example, a railroad project takes years before it is completed. When construction work begins, no one respects the owners and let’s say they have invested in annual agricultural plants. The process is predictable, therefore a month’s delay while the crops are harvested should not be a problem. However, what happens in reality is that people authorized by a document from the state, and without even asking the owner, literally run over the crops. There are other problems. Construction waste is disposed of on adjacent private land plots. There is a contractor, subcontractor, suppliers, etc., therefore the ones to blame are always difficult, not to say impossible, to establish.
Stayko Staykov was born in 1969 and graduated from Burgas Free University, He also has a master's degree from Veliko Tarnovo University “St. Cyril and St. Methodius” and from the Economic Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Mr Staykov has been working in the agricultural sector for 13 years. Since February 2015, he is a chairman of the managing board of the Bulgarian Association of Agricultural Land Owners (BAALO) and was re-elected on that position in 2017.