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MALTATODAY 19 June 2022

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8 maltatoday | SUNDAY • 19 JUNE 2022 NEWS MATTHEW VELLA THE European Court of Hu- man Rights has found that the Maltese government's actions in expropriating private prop- erty that was used for resi- dential housing, is a legitimate public interest when coupled with a bid to curb harmful property speculation. The decision found that ex- propriation of agricultural land at Tal-Andar in Ħal-Qormi in 1985, pursued a public interest to provide residential homes and curb speculation. The Strasbourg court's de- cision also declared that any such compensation for the land is not linked to the State's in- tended purpose for the use of the land – housing – but of the State of the land at the time of expropriation. In this case, applicant Ma- ria Azzopardi complained her €4,000 compensation, based on the value of agricultural land at the time of expropriation, was too low. Both the Maltese and European courts however found no violation of her right to private property. The decision opens up a legal avenue for environ- mentalists and advocates of redrawing Maltese develop- ment boundaries, who argue that the State's power to limit development by pulling back development zones does not require any compensation to 'potential' property specula- tors. Indeed, the decision sup- ports both 'public purpose' expropriations, even when no direct use of the land is made; as well as fair compen- sations that reflect the state of the land at the time it is expropriated, not for their intended purpose. In the Azzzopardi case, the ECHR said she had no guar- antee at the time that she would have been able to sell the same land at prices of developable land. "The appli- cant had no concrete legiti- mate expectation to obtain compensation on the basis of the land being valued as developable. It follows that the legislature's as well as the domestic courts' decisions to consider such land as being agricultural for the purposes of compensation, were not without reasonable founda- tion." Azzopardi however ar- gued that the "new owners" who purchased a plot on the g o v e r n m e n t - e x p r o p r i a t e d land went on to make prof- it on the appreciated value of their homes. To this, the ECHR said the owners who purchased the land from the State "proceeded to con- struct it and maintain it". "The Court cannot ignore that such argumentation is being put forward with the benefit of hindsight," it said, saying Azzopardi or her an- cestors could not have fore- seen back in the 1970s or 1980s the extent of property price inflation in the decades that followed. The Court did however say that the Maltese State should have applied a means-test on prospective buyers, or re- strictive conditions for re- sale to ensure that third-par- ty purchasers did not benefit from windfall profits in the stead of the original owners. Human rights court: State can curb 'harmful property speculation' Expropriations that pursue a public interest to provide housing and curb 'harmful property speculation' THE Qormi property measured just over 3,100 square metres, and was expropriated under the Building Development Areas Act, which declared the land a Build- ing Development Area (BDA). Consequently, the owners lost possession of the property to the State, which sold off the plots to third parties. Some 25 private- ly-owned residential homes still stand on the land today. In 1992, Azzopardi's father filed for compensation before the Land Arbitration Board, and ob- tained his €4,000 compensation in 2013. In 2016, Azzopardi filed a claim for breach of her property rights, claiming her €4,000 compen- sation was inadequate since the land was designted as a BDA. She insisted her land was worth €163,000 in 1985 as a "building site" and €2.2 million in 2014 val- uations. In 2018, the Civil Court found no violation of her rights, saying the land was acquired in good faith and that compensation for the agricultural land as at the time of expropriation was fair value. Her appeal was rejected by the Constitutional Court, which said there was "a clear line between what was developable land or agricultural land... the applicant could have applied to the minis- ter to obtain building permission prior to the BDAA [but] she had had no guarantee that she would have obtained such permit. Thus, its only potential arose conse- quent to the expropriation." "The fact that the land at issue had gained value over the years in favour of third parties did not in itself breach the applicant's property rights, once she had obtained fair compensation. Fur- ther, in the Constitutional Court's view, no third party would have purchased that land at a higher price without a guarantee that they could have developed it." Court saga Malta-Strasbourg

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