Politically connected construction projects are destroying Hungary’s lakesides – NGOs fight back
Nearly 13 hectares of grass and reed will be covered with concrete and paving stones if the hotel, apartment building and sports complex planned for the shores of Lake Fertő are built. Construction projects damaging the waterfront and reedbeds are also popping up around Lake Balaton (the largest lake in Central Europe), with a developer in Tata planning to build a huge hotel on the lake, which also serves as a meeting place for thousands of wild geese every year. On Lake Velence, local authorities are reclassifying waterfront plots of land to create more space for building projects. As it seems almost impossible to limit the activity of well-connected and well-heeled investors, environmentalists and local residents’ organisations together have formed the Great Lakes Coalition to fight the destruction.
In the last two years, so many environmentally damaging projects have been launched around Lake Balaton, Lake Velence, Lake Tata and Lake Fertő that last autumn several NGOs joined forces and launched the Great Lakes campaign with a declaration entitled “The Constitution Offers Protection for our Lakes”. In it, the signatory organisations call on the government to provide accountable guarantees that our Great Lakes will not fall victim to public and private investment, which environmentalists say
“only serve the short-term economic interests of a small group of investors and do not comply with the principles of sustainability and responsible management for future generations”
This campaign was started by a community organising NGO (Rendszerszint Országos Közösségszervező Műhely), an initiative of the Civil College Foundation, and several other organizations. A joint statement in October was signed by 75 organisations as supporters, but since no response came from decision-makers, the organisation initiated the formation of the Great Lakes Coalition to oppose lakeside developments that harm public and conservation interests.
The initiative went public on 22 March 2021, World Water Day, and within a few days a parliamentary resolution was issued and submitted by opposition political party Dialogue for Hungary with the support of other opposition political parties. The document calls on the government, referring to the Constitution and international conventions, to
“to provide accountable guarantees to ensure that our large lakes, Lake Balaton, Lake Fertő, Lake Tata and Lake Venice, which are extremely valuable from a nature conservation point of view, do not fall victim to tourism investments”
No information on sanctions
Átlátszó previously reported on several construction projects damaging Lake Balaton. We asked the environmental authorities (Somogy County Government Office, Zala County Government Office, Veszprém County Government Office) in how many and what type of cases were fines levied or warnings issued for nature-damaging activities affecting Lake Balaton and its surroundings. Only one of the three authorities, the Veszprém County Office replied:
“Since 1 January 2019, the Veszprém County Government Office has imposed nature protection fines in a total of 95 cases for nature-damaging activities. The main reasons for imposing fines were unauthorised reed clearing, tree felling, shrub clearance, filling of the lake bed of Balaton and unauthorised conversion of protected natural areas.”
In the absence of official data, we have had to rely on press and NGO reports to mark on a map the places on Lake Balaton where “problematic” planned or completed construction projects have appeared.
Problematic construction projects around Lake Balaton
In the meantime, the government seems to have had enough of the scandals surrounding the construction projects on the shores of Lake Balaton: in May this year, a ministerial commissioner was unexpectedly appointed to “take care of the tasks related to the protection of the wildlife of Lake Balaton”. It is questionable how much Zsolt Balázs Szári, CEO of the state-owned Balaton Fish Farming Non-profit Ltd, will be able or willing to take action against politically connected investors.
Luxury villas and pools in the protected area – illegal construction on the rise at the Tihany Peninsula
Hungary’s first nature reserve was established here in 1952. It is part of the Balaton Uplands National Park, a Natura 2000 nature conservation area, a World Heritage site – yet the Tihany Peninsula is being built in at a rapid pace.
Referendum initiative in Tata
Construction projects that threaten the natural environment are not only spreading to Lake Balaton and Lake Velence, but the Öreg (Old) Lake in Tata is not safe either. Under the current regulations, the investor company (Avalon) is not allowed to build a hotel on the lakeside, based on the classification of the area. “However, the mayor wants to change the amendment of the town planning plan of Tata in November 2021, bypassing one of our referendum questions, which is causing a huge outcry among the city’s population”, the leader of a local activist group defending Lake Tata, Stop Avalon! Tata civil movement informed Atlatszo.
According to Ildikó Szalay, if the city government amends the town planning plan and rewrites the Local Building Code, it will remove the obstacle for investors. Locals have called for a referendum on the matter, but the earliest it can take place is in spring 2022, although more than the required 4,200 signatures have already been obtained. “However, if the mayor bypasses our referendum questions by amending the settlement plan, our referendum initiative could lose its meaning” – Szalay explained the situation in Tata.
Lawsuit over the development of Lake Fertő
For more than a year, the Friends of Lake Fertő Association has been trying to draw attention to the harmful consequences of a multi-billion public investment project. One of the founders of the organisation, conservation expert Zoltán Kun told Átlátszó:
“The large-scale investment by Lake Fertő is also in conflict with numerous laws and regulations, which, if implemented, would mean the concreting over and paving over of nearly 13 hectares of natural green space (reed beds and grassy, wooded areas). The project is currently under way there, with the water permit approved (silt dredging, etc.), but the environmental and building permits have already been obtained.”
The Local Building Code of the county town of Sopron had to be amended twice (in 2017 and 2018) to allow for this project to be built directly on the lake shore, despite the government decree restricting the construction of waterfront buildings.
Two months ago, the NGO turned to the Green Ombudsman to initiate a constitutional review of the local building regulations that form the basis of the large-scale nature-destroying project. In a call for attention published on 25 May, the Deputy Parliamentary Commissioner responded to this, criticising, among other things, “the increasingly wide exemptions for priority building projects” and recalling that
“the private interests of investment cannot, therefore, override the interests of nature conservation in the public interest of the present and the future, in accordance with the values and rules of the Constitution”
Last January, Zoltán Kun filed a complaint with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for the Environment because he believes that the environmental impact assessment on which the Fertő Lake construction permits were based was prepared in breach of the law. Kun also complained that, in his view, the project, which was planned on a UNESCO World Heritage site and also protected under the Ramsar Convention, should not have been authorised because it would affect highly protected plant and animal species. The Austrian side had not been consulted, which would have been mandatory under the relevant European environmental directive.
Greenpeace Hungary Association has recently sued the Győr-Moson-Sopron County Government Office, which issued the environmental permit No. 5906-34/2018, over the Lake Fertő project. In the lawsuit, the environmental protection organisation lists at length which animal species are (and have already been) harmed by the investment, which, according to them, is contrary to, among others
- the Constitution of Hungary,
- Act LIII of 1996 on the Protection of Nature
- Government Decree No 275/2004 (8.X.2004)
- Government Decree 83/2014 (III14) on the protection of wetlands
- Act XLII of 1993 on internationally important wild waters.
Greenpeace has asked the court to annul the amendment to the environmental permit for the Lake Fertő project, which includes the astonishing justification that
“there is no need to address the destruction of protected natural values because the licensee has already removed them through its activities”
Hungary is going to spend HUF 23 billion (70.7 million EUR) on the construction of a new visitor center on the Hungarian shore of Lake Fertő (Neusiedlersee) on the Austrian-Hungarian border. The beach is already closed at Fertőrákos, restaurants and boat companies have been kicked out.
Destroying what they moved there for
Although sometimes a project is stopped – and even more rarely, illegally built objects demolished: see for example the decision in the case of the Csipak villa in Budapest’s 2nd district – legal solutions in cases of environmental damage are not a sure and quick enough protection in Hungary today, Dr. Csaba Kiss, director of the Environmental Management and Law Association (EMLA), told Átlátszó.
According to Kiss, the spectacular increase in the pressure on the Great Lakes is partly a “natural” process, and the shores of the lakes have always been attractive for construction projects. In addition, during the coronavirus epidemic, people wanted a more tolerable quarantine environment, the need to ‘return to nature’ was heightened and business jumped at the opportunity.
New buildings are often brutally encroaching on the coastline and the townscape created by the houses that have been built. So it is often the case that, although people want to live in places close to nature, it is often the closeness to nature that they lose by moving there.
“While a few years ago our association received 1-2 reports a month about cases of damage to nature, now we receive one almost every day, probably because there are much more such projects and people are more aware of them. There are a lot of scandals around lakes, most investors are not interested in ‘little things’ like keeping the shoreline, for example. If they see fit, they will pour concrete over the waterfront without any scruples. In addition, it is known that mostly the government’s allies are behind these investments, and they are well connected and can override the rules on protected areas. There is no uniform legal protection for our large lakes. It is even more of a mystery how new development can come about, because, for example, the legislation replacing the Lake Balaton Act states that no new areas for development may be designated in the waterfront areas of Lake Balaton.
If a local government tries to resist damaging investment, the investor in the system has a way to bypass and override the local government’s decision and local rules, because there are legal ways to do so. There is no uniform legal protection, so even brutally large projects such as the Lake Fertő hotel construction could go ‘unnoticed’ for a long time, only to be discovered years after the permit was issued. There is no real public participation in the permitting of such matters, and large projects that interfere so much with nature should be subject to national consultation. The law is mostly incapable of dealing with such situations. Those who want to do harm and destroy are always one step ahead of us, so unfortunately we have to tell our clients regularly that because the judicial process is very slow, in most cases the legal solution does not solve the case, but it is more effective to organise campaigns, actions and to discuss the case in the press” – Dr. Csaba Kiss told Átlátszó.
There are only four countries in the world that do not have an independent Ministry of the Environment: Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tanzania, Hungary – stated Tímea Szabó, the leader of the Parliamentary faction of Párbeszéd Magyarország, one of the opposition parties, in the debate of the proposed climate emergency law.
On 27 May, the “Great Lakes NGO Coalition” proposed a resolution (“Protection of the natural and cultural values of Hungary’s Great Lakes”), which was voted down by the Hungarian Parliament’s Sustainable Development Committee with the majority of the governing party, so it will not be even discussed in plenary session. Only one governing party MP, János Bencsik, the elected representative for Tata, voted with the opposition on the issue.
Written by Gabriella Horn, the Hungarian version of this article is available here. Video by Dániel Németh, infographics by Krisztián Szabó.