A protest against the changes in the Biodiversity Act gathered about 200 people in front of the Municipality of Varna at the end of last week. What these changes mean and how they affect us, probably few people are aware. But there is hardly anyone in Varna who does not know about the pollution of Lake Varna from the broken sewer pipe. And what does one have to do with the other, you ask.
The adoption of the controversial legal changes means concentrating all power in the management and control of protected areas in the hands of the Ministry of Ecology through its subordinate regional inspections. This means abolishing the role of scientists, owners and citizens in the process of conserving the Natura 2000 network. And Lake Varna is part of the European ecological network. Although it was declared a protected area under the European Birds Directive 8 years ago, the Varna-Beloslav Lake Complex has not yet adopted a management plan. The management plan is an effective framework for the implementation of conservation measures. “The lack of a plan means that everyone can do what he wants, when he wants and as much as he wants in the protected area,” commented Ilian Iliev from the Public Environmental Center for Sustainable Development. And with the adoption of the amendments to the Law on Biological Diversity, the preparation of these plans will be delayed over time, environmental organizations are adamant.
There are other purposes
A year ago, the former Minister of Ecology Neno Dimov officially declared his intention to remove part of the protected areas in our country from the European nature protection network. According to him, “there are a huge number of areas that fall into Natura and which in no way can be in it, because the data on which they are made are unverified.” His answer comes after the warning of the European Commission from 2018 that criminal proceedings will be initiated against Bulgaria for violating the rules for protection of protected areas.
Why Varna Lake is a protected area
In the Varna-Beloslav lake complex we still have the chance to see over 200 birds in different parts of the year, and over ¼ of them are included in the Red Book. Nearly half of them are of “European environmental importance”. Seven globally endangered species still find in Varna Lake a natural environment in which they can nest, look for food or rest. The area is a suitable habitat for a total of 70 species that are under special protection of the Biodiversity Act. The Varna-Beloslav lake complex is the only wetland between Shabla and Durankulak lakes in the north and Burgas lakes in the south. It is therefore extremely important for birds during migration.
Protected by law …
In 1995, part of the reed massifs in the northeastern part of Varna Lake with 100 meters of lake water area has been declared “Kazashko” protected area. Two years later, the lake complex was registered as an Ornithologically Important Site by BirdLife International. In 1998 it was also designated a CORINE site due to its European importance for the protection of endangered birds. In February 2012, the site was included in the European Natura 2000 network as a protected area.
Administrative acts for protection make sense if they are accompanied by adequate policies for the operation in the respective territories. Instead of ecotourism and small-scale fishing, the plan for the area is to build an hotel, restaurants, stadium, sports complexes. The place of the 20 boats from the fishing cooperative “Little Seagull” will be occupied by 200 yachts, according to the development project.
… But not from people
About 20 movable buildings and vans of fishermen are currently located in the area of Malka Chaika, on the southern shore of Lake Varna. A part of the territory was partially recaptured from the lake, with funds and labor of members of the fishing cooperative. 24 years ago, when the fishermen settled on the shore, the terrains in the area were public state property with the purpose of “agricultural territory” and with a way of permanent use – “sands”. At least this was the case until 2009. A few months after his appointment as regional governor of Varna, Dancho Simeonov signed a Private State Property Act №7489 / 19.12.2009. The territory was transformed and divided into several smaller ones, with the way of permanent use and its purpose changed. About 23 decares, on which the fishing vans are located, become from “agricultural” to “urbanized territory”. A year after the transformation of the property, Mayor Kiril Yordanov started an action to remove the fishing barracks, which was stopped after court disputes.
At the beginning of 2012, the area became part of Natura 2000. It prohibits afforestation of pastures and meadows, as well as damage / mowing and burning of reeds /. It also means that construction in the area should be banned.
However, this did not prevent the Municipal Council of Varna, in July 2012, and the Minister of Regional Development and Public Works, in September 2012 to adopt something completely different with the General Development Plan of the Municipality of Varna. The protected areas, divided and transformed in advance by Dancho Simeonov, fell into a development zone for “Sports and Attractions” with building opportunities.
The real intentions
In 2014, the regional governor Ivan Velikov officially initiated the procedure for privatization and sale of properties before the Agency for Privatization and Post-Privatization’s control.
The procedure was terminated by the agency considering that it was a protected area of the Natura 2000 network. Immediately after its termination, Ivan Velikov concluded with the Medical University – Varna, a contract for the provision of gratuitous management of properties – private state property on the sites in “Natura 2000” of the Varna Lake Complex. Property management is expressed in “construction of a specialized university center for sea sports”, ie. in practice, a building right has been established, which is outside the scope of the term “management” within the meaning of the State Property Act.
In the same year, MU-Varna started a procedure for the preparation and approval of the PUP-PRZ about “provided for management” properties. Subsequently, the University of Economics – Varna was included as an “investor”.
The procedure started in November 2014, supplemented by an order from May 2017 of the Chief Architect of the Municipality of Varna, and 21 properties with a total area of over 32 hectares were gradually included for planning. On some of them it is planned to build a water sports base (15,000 sq. M), a resort hotel and a holiday home (9,000 sq. M). The building density of some of the terrains is 40%.
Meanwhile, in March 2015, the Council of Ministers declared the properties public ones. On this basis, the regional governor of Varna, now Stoyan Pasev, draws up a Public State Property Act, and the Medical University retains its rights for gratuitous management, obtained on the basis of a contract from the former regional governor.
The preservation of such rights is inadmissible in view of the changed status of the property and the new rules that must be applied to it, commented lawyers. Immediately after their reactivation, Kiril Yordanov’s successor, Ivan Portih, started a new action to clear the terrain of the fishermen’s buildings.
Science, ecology and hotels
In April 2018, the director of the Regional Inspectorate for Environment and Water (RIEW) – Varna, authorized the preparation of an environmental assessment of the Detailed Urban Development Plan for the region. From the planned initial “construction of a specialized university center for sea sports”, the investment intention already includes large-scale construction activities, such as construction of sports complexes with multifunctional sports halls, stadium, outdoor and indoor playgrounds, medical rehabilitation centers, hotel with food complex, holiday base, large marina for about 200 berths and marina for 20 berths.
The same properties in February 2020 are again described as private state and private municipal property in the proposal for scope and content of the Environmental Assessment Report submitted to RIEW-Varna by the Rector of MU, Prof. Krassimir Ivanov.
The draft PUP-PRZ is likely to have a significant negative impact on the subject of protection in the area, stated in the opinion of RIEW-Varna to state the need for environmental assessment. Specifically, it is expressed in: “reduction of the bird population”, “permanently and irreparably damaged habitats” of dozens of protected bird species, “threatens the existence of the last remaining natural habitats in the area”. “Nesting habitats are likely to be destroyed” and lead to “violation of the area’s conservation objectives”.
Despite the findings, the RIEW-Varna states that “the investment proposals envisaged with the implementation of the plan do not contradict the regime of a protected area for protection of wild birds.” The conclusion was made in March last year following an eligibility check requested by the Ombudsman.
Public Environmental Center for Sustainable Development made an inquiry under the Law on Access to Public Information to RIEW-Varna, as well as to the Rector of Medical University – Varna, regarding the developed PUP-PPP for the region, as well as the investment proposal of Sports, Yachting Zone and recreation in the area of Malka Chaika.
“An environmental assessment report has not been prepared. The procedure is at the stage of consultations with the public, the interested bodies and third parties, who are likely to be affected by the plan during the various phases of preparation, “reads the response of the Rector of the Medical University – Varna, Prof. Dr. Valentin Ignatov. However, a scheme for public consultations was not presented by either MU or RIEW. A notification has been uploaded on the MU website, without a date, for a procedure for developing an environmental assessment report. It does not mention deadlines, but only the addressees for sending opinions on the provisions of the Detailed Urban Plan.
The prepared scheme for public consultations is not in compliance with the regulations, it is stated in an opinion of the RIEW from March this year. They recommend a minimum time limit for expressing an opinion of 30 days, and not the one specified by the contracting authority – 10.
The PECSD did not receive an answer to the question: How the investment proposal “Zone for sports, yachting and recreation” in the area “Small Seagull” will contribute to the development of educational and scientific activities of the Medical University – Varna. MU is succinct: “The investment proposal will be prepared after the approval of the regulation of the territory.”
Throughout the saga, several questions are puzzling: How is mowing prohibited and construction allowed in the same protected area? How can the planned development strategy not contradict the regime of a protected zone, if at the same time the bird habitats will be permanently and irreparably damaged (RIEW opinions in various letters)? And most importantly: Does the public care about what is happening around Lake Varna or does it affect only about 20 fishermen whose livelihood will be destroyed?