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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

City Pushes for Broader Powers to Seize Land

If Mayor Yury Luzhkov gets his way, Muscovites will soon have little legal recourse when the city decides to kick them out of their homes to make way for new buildings, roads or anything else deemed to be in the public interest.

"City officials just want to simplify the procedure for seizing land and taking possession of it," said Sergei Mitrokhin, a member of the City Duma's Urban Development Commission and a senior member of the opposition Yabloko party.

City Hall wants to expand its power of eminent domain to allow for the construction of apartment buildings on land taken from private owners.

Viktor Damurchiyev, head of the city's Land Resources Department, said the need for the change was obvious. "Moscow is growing and there is not enough available land within the city limits," he said

The problem, critics say, is that vague language in current laws allows land to be taken not for the public good, but for private gain.

The law on relocation and eviction of homeowners, for example, allows the city to take private property for "construction."

City Duma Deputy Ivan Novitsky, also of Yabloko, has said that this broad category allows the city to take over apartment buildings to make way for commercial construction, then turn around and justify it as serving the public good.

"Commercial construction is not a public need," Novitsky said. "At least this definition is not contained in any existing law."

Eminent domain is governed by a number of federal and city laws. The Land Code sets out the basic grounds for the taking of private property.

City laws add several more grounds for the invoking of eminent domain, but until now they did not specifically allow for the construction of apartment buildings on seized land.

The City Duma is currently considering a bill on land use and development that sets out new criteria for the taking of private property within the city. The bill allows the city to invoke eminent domain in order to fulfill major government programs and city contracts and simply for development, said Sergei Belyakov, a lawyer who advises Novitsky.

Unsatisfied with these new categories, City Hall wants to amend the bill to allow for the construction of apartment buildings and infrastructure in accordance with the city's General Plan.

Alexei Klimenko, an adviser to the city's Architecture Department, said the city's aim was simple: "Local officials don't want to let the land that belongs to residents out of their grasp," he said.

City Hall also wants to formalize the process of "reserving" land in advance for future use.

"When building something, we won't be able to identify immediately all of the owners and developers whose interests could be affected," Alexander Kuzmin, head of the city's Architecture Committee, told Vechernyaya Moskva newspaper recently. "This is why we need to begin by reserving plots of land."

Critics counter that the city is simply trying to warn off developers and potential buyers.

"Reserving plots indicates to developers that they shouldn't bid for the [reserved] land because it belongs to the city," said Alexei Navalny, a lawyer with the Committee for the Defense of Muscovites, an organization that represents landowners in legal disputes with the city government.

Yabloko's Mitrokhin said the city's plan for reserving land was excessively vague, and that its only goal was to scare off competitors for choice parcels of real estate.

City Hall's proposed changes to the land-use bill contains another fatal flaw, critics say: It does not specify who will pay compensation to the owners of seized property.

The city's resolution calls only for district officials to negotiate contracts for the purchase of land.

Oleg Ryzhkov, deputy head of the city's Land Resources Department, said the question of compensation would depend on whether the confiscation of land was forcible or voluntary.

"If the confiscation is forcible, compensation will be paid by the city. But if the city reaches agreement with the landowner, compensation could be paid by a developer from the public or private sector," Ryzhkov said.

Mitrokhin said the Yabloko faction had proposed an amendment to the land-use bill that would put the City Duma in charge of determining who should pay compensation. Lawmakers are expected to consider the proposal this week, he said.

The new regulations may also help to protect the city from lawsuits that arise from legal disputes over land seizures, such as the protracted conflict with residents in Yuzhnoye Butovo.

"The main problem is that the government does not allow people to privatize their property," Belyakov said, citing Yuzhnoye Butovo as an example.

"As a result, the city issued a seizure order, but the federal registration agency refused to allow it because the land had never been registered under any owner," he said.