(CN) - Private property classified as a nature preserve must be decommissioned when it no longer serves that purpose, Europe's highest court ruled Thursday.
Natura 2000, the largest ecological network in the world, stems from a 1992 habitats directive by EU lawmakers that tasked member states with monitoring animals and plants within conservation areas designated by the European Commission.
Ticino Valley Natural Park in Lombardy, Italy, is on such special area of conservation. The commission added property owned by Cascina Tre Pini to the park in 2004 as a site of community importance under the habitats directive.
As officials in Lombardy approved plans to develop the area around the preserve for commercial and industrial purposes, the nearby Milan-Malpensa airport began an expansion project.
Since that expansion threatened the area's purpose as a nature preserve, however, Cascina petitioned park managers and then the Italian Ministry of the Environment to take action or declassify it.
After the environment minister and regional leaders in Lombardy ignored it, Cascina took the issue to the Italian Council of State, arguing that its property rights had been restricted though the surrounding area was no longer being treated as a nature preserve.
The Italian court then asked the Court of Justice of the European Union whether the habitats directive allows member states to review and decommission nature preserves in the Natura 2000 network.
In its decision Thursday, the Luxembourg-based court noted that the habitats law does not expressly allow for declassifying sites of community importance, but has a procedure for delisting special areas of conservation. And since member states must classify all sites of community importance as such areas, the same procedure to declassify applies to both.
"When a site of community importance is definitively no longer capable of contributing to the achievement of the objectives of the habitats directive and, accordingly, it is no longer warranted for the site to remain subject to the provisions of that directive, the member state concerned is required to propose to the commission that the site be declassified," the court wrote. "If that state were to refrain from proposing its declassification, it could continue to use resources in vain to manage that site which would prove to be of no use to the conservation of natural habitats and species. In addition, keeping sites which no longer definitively contribute to the achievement of those objectives in the Natura 2000 network does not meet the quality requirements of that network."
Keeping private property tied up in a nature preserve that is no longer preserving anything may also amount to an infringement of the right to property under EU law, the court said.
"It must, however, be pointed out that a mere allegation of environmental degradation of a site of community importance, made by the owner of land included in that site, cannot suffice of itself to bring about such an adaptation of the list," the decision states. "It is essential that that degradation should make the site irretrievably unsuitable to ensure the conservation of natural habitats and of the wild fauna and flora or the setting up of the Natura 2000 network, so that that site can definitively no longer contribute to the achievement of the objectives of the directive, the conservation and setting up of that network which have led to the inclusion of such a site on that list."
Member states have the freedom to delegate those decisions to local authorities, although the habitats directive doesn't require action at either level when a property owner requests decommissioning a site, according to the ruling.
"Nonetheless, EU law does require the arrangements within the national legal system to be in their entirety sufficiently effective to enable the requirements of the habitats directive to be correctly applied," the court concluded.