On the Bill on Abrogation of Categories of Land

On 12 June, the State Duma Committee on Agricultural Matters discussed an earlier submitted to the State Duma bill "On introducing amendments to the Land Code of the Russian Federation and individual legislative acts of the Russian Federation with respect to abrogation of categories of land and recognition of the Federal Act "On transition of land or land lot fr om one category into another" to be having lost force.
Revolutionism of the document lies in introduction of a new classification of land in the country.
Since the 1920s and until now, all the land fund in the country has been classified into the following categories:
  1. Agricultural land
  2. Settlement land
  3. Land for industry, energy, transport, communication, radio and TV broadcasting, informatics, land for ensuring space activities, land for defense, security, and other kinds of special-purpose land
  4. Land of specially protected territories and objects
  5. Land of forest funds
  6. Land of water fund
  7. Undistributed land

Meanwhile, the land is used in accordance with a specific purpose established for each category.
The recently introduced bill proposes to abandon the categories and transit to zones which should be establishedby local administrations and to substitute for the designated use with the permitted use, with permits to be granted by the said administrations. The bill interprets the permitted use as operation which may be carried out within a given land plot and permits of restriction of kinds of use, albeit solely within protected areas and territories of objects of the cultural heritage (monuments and architectural ensembles).

Kinds of operations are introduced by a territory use regulation in accordance with the classification of kinds of permitted use, which is subject to a federal body's approval. Such regulations are not established for territories of forest fund, lands covered by surface waters, specially protected natural territories, and land lots located within special economic zones. That is to say, considering the classification from the perspective of the currently used categories, the regulations are set in the territory of settlements, industry and the likes, as well as with respect toagricultural lands and undistributed land. The bill provides for a "simple" transition from construction regulations toward territory use ones (including farmland, inter alia), which is, essentially, a change of terminology, though agricultural lands thus become subject to all the procedures earlier designed for developed territories. The agricultural lands had earlier had various protection mechanisms which preclude their withdrawal from the agricultural production sphere, but these mechanisms are to be lifted now.

The bill was developed in accordance with the Action Plan on improvement of supervisory, control and licensing functions and optimization of public services delivery in the urban development area. The Action Plan was approved by Resolution of the RF Government of 15 June 201 №982-r.
The memorandum to the bill holds that, "by 1 January 2013 there should be developed and approved procedures of land-use and development in all the settlements, urban districts. Wh ere the said document is missing, the ban on provision for development of land lots owned by the government or municipalities, on granting a construction license, on modification of the kind of permitted use of the land lot should come in force". Needless to say, such documents appear missing practically everywhere, while budgets fell short of funding a labor-intensive and costly work on their development.
Meanwhile, the financial feasibility study maintains that the project implementation will not require extra funding from the federal budget.

While commenting on the document, it is worthwhile to focus on the following three aspects:
First, in most countries but some former USSR Republics, categories of land are not subject to a special regulation. From this perspective, the authors of the document are right in their strive for following best practices.

Second, the concept of refusal of categories as a special object of land regulation is worth support because of several reasons:
1. Nationwide, non-agricultural lands (forests, swamps, burned areas, sites under buildings and highways)on average account for more than a half of farmland. Uniform regulation of all this seems inappropriate, for why one should object withdrawing a land lot from the category of agricultural land if it is not suitable for farming? Why does one need to request a permit to change the category of a bayou lot from the governor? Why is it impossible to sell a burned area to a Ukrainian resident, while other lots (those from settlement lands) can be sold to him? Why does one need a special decision to transfer the lot under his garage to the settlement land category if the same garage is still there, but as an element of the settlement already?
2. The bill suggests no protection mechanisms with regard to fairly huge lots of farmland listed under other categories of land, eg. farmland falling under undistributed land appears absolutely unprotected, while the one falling under the forest and water funds is unprotected as farmland per se. This means that there is no need to stick to categories for the sake of uniform regulation. Rather, one should transit to zones, licensed use depending on the size and value of a lot for farming.
Third, identification of the "farmland" category is somewhat different from identification of other categories, for this implies protecting a valuable non-renewable resource. It is abrogation of farmland protection mechanisms (rather than cancellation of the categories per se) which stirred debate, which was further fanned by such land lots mission of serving public interests, including protection of agro-landscapes, and the core resource which underpins the nation's food security. Judging the bill right from the perspective of the presenceof sound mechanisms to protect the nonrenewable strategic resource, the conclusion is extremely negative, for the document lacks protection mechanisms but contains a few declarations which cannot be implemented. On the other hand, an important caveat is not to use farmland for development, as such land, regretfully, forms the only resource for it.
The authors of the document reference to international practices, but refrain from referring to the fact that developed countries have long classified their lands, with most valuable ones being either impossible to be withdrawn from turnover (Japan), or one does everything he can to preclude their development (US). There are numerous protection mechanisms in such countries, each having been legislated, and their governments stand by declarations they make. To cite a particular example, in the US, there are model (state-wise) and subject to approval (county-wise) procedures of farmland zoning, along with detailed development regulation, which provides for every tine aspect of land-use, up to the kinds of non-agricultural activities the farmer is allowed to carry out in his place and the size of the arrow by the farm. The respective documents enumerate valuable lands and the most valuable ones and foresee incentives for those who vow not to develop farmland. Plus, government redeems development licenses, limits the built-up density, etc.

The bill in question also refers to singling out the most valuable land lots; however, this requires development of criteria, an appraisal procedure, compiling lists of lots, zoning, and establishment of regulations depending on such lots' value. All these exercises are very costly, but the authors of the bill maintain not a single penny out of the federal budget is going to be spent.

In our perspective, under the circumstances it would be appropriate to take the following steps:

  1. If it is impossible to shelve the idea of adoption of the bill, the farmland (located beyond the settlement line) should not be subject to the respective legislative act until a special legal act to regulate allocation of farmland for development is passed.
  2. A large-scale work on territorial planning should be launched; long-term territory development plans should be adopted, with farmland and other zones classified therein, and most valuable land plots which may not be used for development purposes in the long run should be identified; plus, the procedure of establishment of kinds of permitted land-use and community's contribution to debates on the issue need to be developed. The nation needs model regulation with regard to land lots, which could be further modified and approved at each level in different territories, as such regulation may not be a uniform, nationwide, one. All the above demands huge public funding; however, such costs falls under the "green basket" WTO cares about so much. The state program of support of the agricultural complex provides for assessment of land fertility rate, and such data should be employed for the sake of land classification.
  3. The law with regard to exclusion of temporary- or permanent-residence settlements, that is to say, territories of private small-scale land cultivation and construction partnerships, from the category of farmland should be revised, and such establishments should be integrated into settlement land.
  4. To reduce propensity for corruption with respect to granting the right for development of the least valuable farmland it is appropriate to devise a mechanism of sales of the respective right, which should include an auction on individual lots, each representing a land plot of a certain area in the territory wherein development plans provide for the possibility of construction projects. The right should be granted to an owner of the farmland lot form the territory concerned who has submitted the biggest bid to the local municipality. Such an approach to granting the development right will benefit both the developer, who will enjoy an unambiguous mechanism of vesting, and budgets which will cash in a handsome payment from the successful bidder. Such a procedure will take about two months to devise, while the rest of the zoning job is going to take a long time.Once it is over, it would be possible to revisit the bill concerned with regard to farmland beyond settlements' boundaries.

Dr. N. Shagaida, Head of Department of Agricultural Policy