Above the left shore of Lake Zlatar, on the local road leading to the town of Ivanjica in the municipality of Nova Varoš, one can get a beautiful view of this man-made lake and the mountains that surround it.
Below the road, right along the shore, blended in with the evergreen scenery and surrounded by a wire fence, is a holiday home built without a permit, with an access path, an outbuilding and a solar panel.
When rangers of the Uvac Special Nature Reserve visited it during one of their daily tours of the area, they encountered signs reading “Beware of the dog” and “This building is under video surveillance.”
Ranger Stevo Radovanović remembers a time when there was just a concrete slab there with a trailer on top of it. Meanwhile, an entire holiday home has been built on that spot. It was one of the first cases of illegal construction he came across after he got a job at the reserve some ten years ago.
“When [the Uvac area] started being promoted as a protected area, that’s when it started to attract more and more people,” says Radovanović.
This holiday home is just one of the many built without a permit in the Uvac Special Nature Reserve over the past eight years. Between 2012 and October 2020, inspectors of the Ministry of Construction, Transportation and Infrastructure issued 42 decisions ordering the stoppage of illegal construction and the demolition of buildings that were under construction in the reserve. Out of that number, just 13 structures were torn down and solely on the grounds of a decision made in 2015.
Nikola Stanojević of the Center for Biodiversity Research explains that a big problem in nature conservation in a protected area is unplanned construction and occupation of space, which causes these areas to lose their natural value. Stanojević underscores that construction lasts a long time and that there are few cases of demolition of already completed buildings.
“That is certainly one of the worst threats to protected areas, which are generally very loosely conceived in our country, in the sense that the effective part of a protected area is much smaller than what is declared.”
Nonetheless, regardless of the fact that they built structures without permits, some of the owners later legalized them based on the Building Legalization Law adopted in 2015.
Research conducted by the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) shows that in this way environmental protection regulations are bypassed and that the Municipality of Nova Varoš in the legalization of certain buildings after 2015 failed to seek the consent of the organization in charge of protection of natural resources, as envisaged by the law, i.e. the consent of the Institute for Nature Conservation of Serbia.
We did not get an answer from the Ministry to the question about whether structures the demolition of which had been ordered before the adoption of the new Law could be legalized.
Protected areas have three degrees of protection – the first and strictest one, second and third – which determine what can be done in a protected area without endangering it.
The decree on the Uvac Special Nature Reserve placed this territory under the second degree of protection, so as to, among other things, protect a rare species of bald eagle, create better conditions for the return of plants and animals that have vanished from the area, but also to conserve the beauty and diversity of the landscape.
For someone to build something legally in a protected area, they must meet the conditions set by the Institute for Nature Conservation. However, some owners of buildings in Uvac are performing illegal construction anyway, disregarding the aforementioned regulations.
Later, when the time comes for them to legalize those illegal buildings, they do so on the grounds of the Building Legalization Law. The law states that in the legalization of structures built under the first and second degree of protection, owners must seek a second document – consent of the Institute, unless the buildings in question are holiday homes and family vacation homes, which is predominantly the case with illegal construction in Uvac. In that way, the investors legalize their buildings without the conditions for environmental impact assessment.
Nevertheless, the problem with many holiday homes in Uvac is that they are also located in the first sanitary protection zone of water sources, established in a bid to prevent pollution and other forms of negative impact on water sources – and so their legalization requires the Institute’s consent after all.
CINS’ research shows that the administration of the Municipality of Nova Varoš has been legalizing buildings for years, without asking for this consent.
A decision on legalization made by the municipal administration in 2016 legalized a structure owned by Dragan Matijević, a Nova Varoš entrepreneur and politician, without the Institute’s permission, even though the building is located in the first sanitary protection zone of water sources. That subsequently became a model according to which other buildings were legalized, too – at least 14 in the reserve, from 2016 to September 2020.
According to Institute for Nature Conservation data, the first time the Municipality addressed them was no earlier than in November 2020, for a structure built under the third degree of protection. The Institute did not give its consent to legalization precisely because the building was in the first sanitary protection zone of water sources.
In spite of numerous attempts, we did not manage to get an official comment from the Nova Varoš municipal administration.
Crime without punishment
Užice resident Slobodan Rebić started building a structure without a permit in November 2012. A municipal construction inspector ordered him to remove what had been built and restore the land to its original state. At the time of the inspector’s visit Rebić was not at the location, and so the minutes were posted up on the building.
In December that same year, the state inspector announced to Rebić – present at the time – the issuing of a decision on the demolition of executed works, which came in January the following year.
Rebić continued to build the structure.
In July 2013, the municipal inspector went out into the field again and put together minutes.
The Uvac Special Nature Reserve also filed criminal charges to the Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office in Prijepolje in 2013. According to the charges, Uvac rangers noticed that Rebić continued the construction works at night:
“It can simply be concluded that Rebić is consciously and deliberately committing a criminal offense, behaving extremely rudely and arrogantly, simultaneously ‘mocking’ the inspectorate, the reserve, the municipality of Nova Varoš and the Republic of Serbia. Truth be told, during on-site inspection, Rebić always states that he knows he is committing a criminal offense, that the inspectorate is only doing its job, as is the Uvac Reserve LLC, and then continues to ‘do his thing,’ i.e. as soon as he ‘sees the rangers’ backs’ he continues to build intensively.”
The following year, Rebić entered into a plea bargain with the prosecutor’s office, after which he was handed down a six-month prison sentence and a 100,000 dinar fine.
The municipal administration legalized his building in 2017, even though a part of it was in the first sanitary protection zone of water sources.
Rebić told CINS that he had built a structure in a protected area, but so had others:
“There are over two hundred buildings up there, each got a ban on construction and after that it was regulated by law and legalized.”
Slobodan Rebić is a cousin of Police Director Vladimir Rebić.
Out of the 19 charges the reserve filed to the prosecutor’s office in Prijepolje from 2012 to October 2020, against investors working without a construction permit, in 11 cases the investors were handed down suspended prison sentences and 100,000 dinar fines. In two cases, the charges were dismissed as the principle of opportunity was applied, i.e. the defendants paid a fine – in one case 15,000 and in the other 30,000 dinars.
The owners of illegal buildings are most often aware that they are committing a criminal offense. A verdict handed down by the Basic Court in Prijepolje says that the owner of a holiday home at Lake Zlatar had prior to starting construction visited the Uvac Special Nature Reserve to get familiarized with the consequences of illegal construction. Although the then director told him that in that case the reserve would file criminal charges to the prosecutor’s office, the holiday home was built.
A jurist at the Uvac Special Nature Reserve, Darko Ćirović, believes that the fines handed down by courts are too small and that investors have no problem paying them.
“One time, when a very wealthy investor built a truly impressive structure, it’s several tens of thousands of euros, the court fined him one hundred thousand dinars. The first thing the investor asked the judge at that hearing was whether there was a Post Office window in the court building, for him to just go and settle that. Like in comic books, when a mosquito lands on an elephant. So, nothing.”
Ćirović further says that the reserve also sent complaints against the work of judicial bodies to the Ministry of Justice. That is why he asks himself what the point of all they are doing is.
“And the rangers ask that question – what is the point of me trying to do something when a ranger’s salary, for example, isn’t even 300 euros, and I mess with some tough people, and even if there is a decision (by a construction inspector, journalist’s note), the decision is only on paper, or if it gets to a court it is some modest penalty.”
Camping trailers adapted for enjoyment
In November 2020, the CINS journalist visited the Uvac Special Nature Reserve and found a large number of camping trailers set up at Lake Radoinja. Some of them are covered by wooden awnings and have practically been turned into actual structures. The owner of one made himself a deck and stairs leading straight down into the water.
“They are acting like the owners of state land there, buying and reselling camping trailers. If they are selling a trailer for a higher figure, then they say in conversation ‘well, I sold the spot, too.’ I mean, sold the spot, like when you sell a car and you sell a parking spot, it kind of seems like that,” ranger Stevo Radovanović says.
Nova Varoš alderman and businessman Fiko Avdić has also put a trailer on the shore of Lake Zlatar. Along with the camping trailer, which he covered with an awning, Avdić also built a tin-roofed deck. For that reason, criminal charges were pressed against him, and a construction inspector issued a decision on the demolition of the deck. The decision states that Avdić admitted to having carried out construction without previously reporting the works and without a construction permit, as well as that the land is not his.
He was handed down a suspended prison sentence and a 100,000 dinar fine.
Ahead of the decision on demolition of the deck, Avdić complained to the inspectorate that he had set up the camping trailer with the approval of the reserve director. He also told CINS that inspectors had visited him after he had begun setting up the deck.
“I explained everything nicely to the inspector, but they are only interested in dry facts, that the deck is in the area of the Uvac reserve. And I got criminal charges after that. Never before in my life had I had criminal [charges]. I was terribly disappointed.”
Avdić responds to the remark that the deck is the problem, since it is in a protected area, by saying that there are others who are building there, but no one is going after them.
“There are dozens upon dozens of buildings there. Nova Varoš should be a place for people to live in and be attracted to come to, rather than to be driven away at any cost. If this should be guarded only because of the bald eagle, then that’s terrible. The state has taken that under its wing. But you can’t have ten rangers and say this is ours. What about the people who live here?”
Avdić told CINS that he had not shortened his deck or moved the camping trailer. He subsequently called the journalist and told her that he would remove the controversial elements after all, when the weather allowed it.
Darko Ćirović says that the problem with camping trailers is that they are not “solid structures,” and so jurisdiction is questionable.
“In August 2020, as many as seven or eight inspectors, I think, visited the Uvac reserve, including the state construction inspector, the chief of the state construction inspectorate, the state communal inspector, the state environmental protection inspector. We toured the ground there for two days, talked about those ‘prefabricated buildings’ but did not move from the starting point. Those buildings still exist,” says Ćirović.
Mentor: Vladimir Kostić
This article was created with the support of WWF Adria-Serbia in the project titled Climate Pact for Impact financed by the Government of Sweden. The sole responsibility for the content of the article lies with the author and does not necessarily represent the views of WWF Adria-Serbia or the donors.