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Rural Flanders asks for clarification on property law

Photo by Helen Lyons/The Brussels Times

Landelijk Vlaanderen, the association of Flemish land, forest and nature owners, is calling for clarification from the federal government regarding a reformed property law in Belgium intended to allow people access to a neighbour’s garden in special circumstances, such as to retrieve lost balls or pets.

The law, which sparked confusion across the country when it was first announced, had many farmers concerned over the interpretation of its language regarding people’s right to access “unused” or “undeveloped” land.

Some agricultural land may look undeveloped, but this is only because fields aren’t necessarily sown every year.

If people were to trespass on that land, it could cause damage to the fields.

Minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open VLD) did publish a “fact check” clarifying that the property law does not apply to agricultural land, but Landelijk Vlaanderen says this isn’t enough.

They’re asking the federal government to “clearly outline the damage to property rights and to thoroughly revise the newly introduced legislation.”

“If the federal government fails to do so, then the Flemish government and, alternatively, the municipal authorities in Flanders must intervene regarding the encroachment of Flemish competence on land-related matters,” they said in a statement.

“The new property law has a direct impact on Flemish regulations concerning nature, agriculture, hunting, forestry, tourism, recreation, management of governmental domains, etc.”

The language that the association is concerned about is as follows:

Where an undeveloped and unworked property is not closed off, anyone may enter it unless the owner of that property has caused damage or nuisance or has made it clearly known that it is forbidden for third parties to enter the land without his permission. (Article 67 §3)

Christophe Lenaerts, the chairman of Landelijk Vlaanderen, says this language isn’t clear.

“In the new property law, this will be allowed to happen openly and it is the owner who has to defend himself against this ‘legal tolerance’ with unclear terminology and undefined concepts,” Lenaerts told the Flemish infocentre for agriculture and horticulture (VILT).

“This is legislation that will unnecessarily burden our courts. It is nowhere clear that motorised means of transport are excluded from the ‘legal right of way’ and contradictory statements are made about the owner’s responsibility in the event of accidents caused by the terrain situation.”

That could mean pits, ditches or dead branches, and Lenaerts said it’s also not clear whether third party non-owners are eligible for compensation for their damage: for example, tenants, hunters or fauna managers.

The lawyer and honorary chairman of Landelijk Vlaanderen, Philippe Casier, told VILT this information is nowhere to be found in the text and the clarification by the minister is therefore “built on legal quicksand.”

Casier also referred to the statements made by Vincent Sagaert (KULeuven), one of the professors who drew up the new reform.

In De Standaard, Sagaert said that empty land is socialised.

“It prevents owners from doing nothing with it, but still being able to lay their hands on it completely without harming third parties,” Sagaert said.

“A field with nothing on it, or a road with nothing on it, which lies between two footpaths, can be entered by people.”

Other legal experts, such as Brussels lawyer Fernand Keuleneer, also said that Van Quickenborne’s clarification goes against the letter of the law, VILT reported.

Landelijk Vlaanderen is hoping for a clarification soon.

“It is still customary in our country for the judge to base his decision on the text of a law, and not on statements in the press or on a fact check from the minister’s communications department,” said Lenaerts.

“We therefore ask that the federal government itself adjust the law.”