Habitat Directive: ECJ rejects ‘mitigation measures’ in Briels and forces infrastructure works into the compensation procedure.

The widening of the A2 motorway towards Eindhoven, impacted on the Natura 2000 site Vlijmens Ven, Moerputten & Bossche Broek (‘the Natura 2000 site’). That site was designated by the Netherlands authorities as an SAC for, in particular, the natural habitat type molinia meadows, which is a non-priority habitat type.  The Minister provided for a certain number of measures aimed at lessening the environmental impact of the A2 motorway project.

Assessment concluded that the A2 motorway project would have negative implications for the existing area comprising the habitat type molinia meadows. The assessment also stated that sustainable conservation and development of the molinia meadows be achieved if the hydrological system was completed.  In that regard the A2 motorway project provides for improvements to the hydrological situation in Vlijmens Ven, which will allow the molinia meadows to expand on the site. The Minister states that this will allow for the development of a larger area of molinia meadows of higher quality, thereby ensuring that the conservation objectives for this habitat type are maintained through the creation of new molinia meadows.

Briels and Others brought an action against the two ministerial orders before the referring court. They take the view that the Minister could not lawfully adopt the orders for the A2 motorway project, given the negative implications of the widening of the A2 motorway for the Natura 2000 site in question. They argue that the development of new molinia meadows on the site, as provided for by the ministerial orders at issue in the main proceedings, could not be taken into account in the determination of whether the site’s integrity was affected. They submit that such a measure cannot be categorised as a ‘mitigating measure’, a concept which is, moreover, absent from the Habitats Directive.

The Netherlands Raad van State suggested that the criteria for determining whether the integrity of the site concerned is affected are not to be found either in the Habitats Directive or the Court’s case-law, whence the question ‘whether the expression “will not adversely affect the integrity of the site” in Article 6(3) of [the Habitats Directive] to be interpreted in such a way that, where the project affects the area of a protected natural habitat type within [a Natura 2000 site], the integrity of the site is not adversely affected if in the framework of the project an area of that natural habitat type of equal or greater size [to the existing area] is created within that site?’ and ‘[If not], is the creation of a new area of a natural habitat type then to be regarded in that case as a “compensatory measure” within the meaning of Article 6(4) of the [Habitats Directive]?

The Court held (at 28) that the application of the precautionary principle in the context of the implementation of Article 6(3) of the Habitats Directive requires the competent national authority to assess the implications of the project for the Natura 2000 site concerned in view of the site’s conservation objectives and taking into account the protective measures forming part of that project aimed at avoiding or reducing any direct adverse effects for the site, in order to ensure that it does not adversely affect the integrity of the site.

! However (at 29), protective measures provided for in a project which are aimed at compensating for the negative effects of the project on a Natura 2000 site cannot be taken into account in the assessment of the implications of the project provided for in Article 6(3).

(As a supporting argument (at 32), the Court suggested that as a rule, any positive effects of a future creation of a new habitat which is aimed at compensating for the loss of area and quality of that same habitat type on a protected site, even where the new area will be bigger and of higher quality, are highly difficult to forecast with any degree of certainty and, in any event, will be visible only several years into the future. Consequently, they cannot be taken into account at the procedural stage provided for in Article 6(3) of the Habitats Directive).

Authorisation for the project therefore needs to be given in accordance with the procedure for compensation measures, provided for in Article 6(4). (Which does not make the project impossible. It just makes the outcome less certain and at the least more lengthy).

Many developers (and authorities with them) had hoped that a different answer of the ECJ would have had the potential to reduce the amount of negative appropriate assessments.  Quod non.

Geert.

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