EU: ECJ rules that Natura 2000 sites are not carved in stone

By its 3 April 2014 judgment in a preliminary ruling procedure, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has held that in certain cases the member states are required to propose to the commission the declassification of a site on the list of ‘sites of community importance’ (SCIs). This is especially true for those cases in which the owner of land forming part of a site on that list makes a request to declassify that site and proves that the relevant site cannot contribute to the achievement of the objectives set forth in the Habitats Directive.

Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora (Habitats Directive) provides for setting up a European network of areas of conservation under the title ‘Natura 2000’. Said directive required the member states to nominate sites suitable for entry in the Natura 2000 network. Based on such nominations, the commission selected the sites forming the Natura 2000 network as SCIs. The member states were then required to establish adequate national rules to give protection to these SCIs as ‘special areas of conservation’ (SACs).

Already in the course of the nomination of areas of conservation by the member states, landowners offered strong resistance against the inclusion of their lands in the areas of conservation system. They did so for an obvious reason: the inclusion of land in the areas of conservation system results in the applicability of article 6 of the Habitats Directive. Pursuant to article 6(2) of the Habitats Directive, any deterioration of natural habitats and any disturbance of the species for which the areas have been designated shall be avoided on such land…

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