1.2 Main principles

1.2.1 The planning system is hierarchical and interactive at the same time

There are four types of plans in the Estonian planning system: national spatial plan, county plan, comprehensive plan (of a rural municipality or a city) and detailed plan.
On one hand, the planning system is hierarchical. It means that a less general plan should be compliant with the more general plan in order to ensure the continuity of spatial development. On the other hand, during the preparation of a less general plan, it is relatively easy to amend the more general plan in order to ensure timely reaction to changing needs. While saying this, it should be clarified that a proposal to amend can be made only for the plan that is more general by one level, i.e. with a detailed plan a proposal could be made to amend a comprehensive plan, but not a county plan. The Planning Act has also been reproached for providing the possibility to amend a more general plan with a plan that is less general, saying that it makes it too easy for local governments to amend their comprehensive plans with detailed plans. However, the deployment of strict hierarchical locks would make the system too rigid and exclude the necessary and justified amendments, for example those proposed by detailed plans to comprehensive plans. The suggestions to 'lock' the system are the results of a few unjustified and inappropriate decisions by local governments, whereby public interests stated in comprehensive plans have been disregarded for meeting narrow private interests. It is not possible to prohibit inappropriate decisions by law. At the same time, 'locking' the system is likely to impede necessary and justified decisions. Inappropriate decisions can be avoided by thorough consideration and wider involvement of public in the consideration process.

1.2.2 The Choices for the Type of Plan and the Size of Planned Territories are Very Flexible

The law does not draw a very clear line between different types of plans. For example, for a territory that is comprised of several rural municipalities, it is possible to prepare a common comprehensive plan or a county plan for the respective part of the county. Also, it is possible to have two different kinds of plans for a smaller part of a city - it may be a comprehensive plan of a part of the city or a detailed plan. In such cases, the choice between the types of plans is determined by the objectives or legal aims that the plan is expected to achieve. If it is desired to establish binding conditions of land use and building for the owners of immovables in the areas where detailed planning is not mandatory, a common comprehensive plan for rural municipalities or the parts of several rural municipalities should be prepared. If the aim is to define common strategic objectives for the spatial development of several rural municipalities or parts thereof, it is more appropriate to prepare a county plan for that part of the county.

1.2.3 There are Two Clearly Distinguishable Boundaries in the Planning System

There are two clearly distinguishable boundaries between different types of plans - a detailed plan is the only plan that deals with plots/registered immovables and a county plan is the last plan on the level of generalisation that deals with land use planning. A national spatial plan is no more a classical land use plan; it sets the country's spatial development strategy. In detailed plans and comprehensive plans the land use plan on a map is the most important part of the plan; the text of the plan is the explanation of the map. In national spatial plan, the text carries the most important message, and the drawings are for its illustration.

1.2.4 Public Disclosure of Planning

The main task of planning is to reach the agreement regarding the principles and conditions of the development of the planning area. In the planning process, every time a smaller or greater primary contradiction has to be solved between preserving and changing - most of the disputes in planning concern the questions of what and how much to change or preserve. In order to ensure as wide and as balanced social agreement as possible, planning activities have to be public according to the Planning Act. Public disclosure is mandatory in order to ensure the involvement of all interested persons and the timely provision of information to such persons and to enable such persons to defend their interests in the process of planning.

1.2.5 The Allocation of Roles in the Preparation of Plans

The preparation of plan is initiated and organised and plans are adopted by the administration of the respective administrative unit, i.e. for the territory of the whole country it is done by the Government of the Republic, for a county - the county governor, and for the territory of a local government - the local government. Supervision of county plans, comprehensive plans and on certain conditions also of the preparation of detailed plans is mandatory before their adoption. The supervision of the preparation of county plans is carried out by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, while the county governor supervises the preparation of comprehensive plans and detailed plans.
Hereby it should be reminded that in Estonia there is no regional local government and that the county governor is the representative of state in the county.

1.2.6 For an Owner of Immovable, Only One Plan is Legally Binding

For an owner of immovable, the most detailed plan that is mandatory to be prepared for a particular area is legally binding, i.e. an adopted detailed plan is legally binding for an owner of immovable in an area and in cases where detailed planning is mandatory; adopted comprehensive plan is legally binding in those areas and cases where detailed planning is not mandatory.

1.2.7 Local Government May Not Delegate Carrying Out Proceedings

According to the Planning Act, all proceedings during the preparation of a plan have to be carried out by the local government, county governor or the ministry; they cannot be carried out by a consultant who may assist them in the preparation of a plan. As a rule, the appropriate state institutions prepare national spatial plan or county plan themselves, local governments, however, often order the preparation of plans from planning companies. The aforementioned statement expresses one of the most important ground principles of the Planning Act - a local government that organises the planning is fully responsible for the content of the plan, the proceedings and planning decisions. The institution adopting a plan has to make a well-considered decision that takes into account all information gathered during the preparation of the decision. Local governments can have such information only if they themselves are involved in the proceedings and presenting and defending the plan in different institutions and in front of the public. Carrying out proceedings also ensures greater continuity and professionalism in local governments. It is emphasised in the PLA that even if a local government enables an interested person to order the preparation of detailed plan, the local authority remains the organiser of the preparation of the plan and the one who carries out all proceedings.

1.2.8 The Requirements for the Proceedings of Detailed Plans are More Strict in Certain Cases

The requirements for the proceedings of detailed plan are more stringent in four cases:

  • In case the detailed plan is prepared for areas which are of significant public/general interest and value (areas under conservation or areas concerning which a corresponding proposal has been made, regions of significant urban development potential);
  • In case the detailed plan is prepared for such area where the general development principles and interests are not defined with a comprehensive plan (in cities with official city districts, with a comprehensive plan of the city district);
  • In case the detailed plan is intended to amend the basic content of the comprehensive plan;
  • In case there are unsolved objections.

The requirements are more stringent in order to ensure a better balance of different interests - especially public/general and private interests and values - in the development of a certain area. The existence of significant public interest/significant value in the planning area:

  • Elicits the need for more extensive disclosure during the preparation of the plan (§ 16 subsection 3),
  • Excludes the possibility to make an exception to the requirement to prepare a detailed plan (§ 9 subsection 10),
  • Excludes the possibility to enter into a contract for the preparation of a detailed plan with a person in private law interested in the preparation of a plan (§ 10 subsection 6).
  • The absence of comprehensive plan or the proposal to amend it:
  • Elicits the obligation to present the detailed plan to the supervisor (§ 23 subsection 2),
  • Excludes the possibility to enter into a contract for the preparation of a detailed plan with a person in private law interested in the preparation of a plan (§ 10 subsection 6).

The clearer and stricter presentation of these requirements serve the purpose of emphasising the importance to follow the general development principles of a city/rural municipality and take into account general public interest and values.

1.2.9 The Obligation of Discretion During the Preparation of a Plan

The experience gathered by the time of preparing the PLA made it necessary to put stronger emphasis on the discretionary nature of planning. Therefore, in various provisions the expression ‘in the event of justified need' is used in the PLA to communicate the requirement of clarifying the reasons why certain decisions have been made in or about a plan and what is intended to be achieved by such decisions. By the time of preparing the PLA, many significant decisions of the Supreme Court regarding discretion had not been made yet. Based on these decisions and further experience until now, the PLA is likely to need further amendments so that the discretionary nature of planning would be highlighted and reflected more accurately.
Sufficient and reasoned discretion of the content of the plan ensures also the assessment of the likely effects of the implementation of the plan, which is required by the respective Act and the Euro-directive. This helps to extend the constricted requirement of the Directive that provides the assessment of environmental impact to assessing the impact on all components of the environment listed in the European Spatial Planning Charter.

1.2.10 The Obligation to Inform Personally is Rather Limited

The PLA stipulates personal notification, by way of registered letter, to the owners of immovables related to the preparation of plan only on three occasions:

  1. If at the initiation or preparation of a plan it is known that there might be a need for the transfer of immovables as a result of the implementation of the plan (§ 12 subsection 4, § 18 subsection 5).
  2. If a temporary building ban has been established for the time of the preparation of the plan (§ 15 subsections 4 and 5).
  3. If a person has submitted proposals or objections during the time the plan has been on display (§ 20 subsection 2, § 23 subsection 4, § 25 subsection 7).

It can be concluded that there is the obligation to give personal notification only in those cases where the plan decisions affect personal property rights or if a person has expressed her/his views about the plan during the public display of the plan. There are two aspects which provide the basis for such arrangement. The preparation of the Act has followed the understanding that participating in the public processes of the preparation of plans is not merely a right of a citizen; instead, the participation in community life and in the planning of the physical and social environment is the responsibility of a citizen. Therefore, it is citizens' duty to follow what is happening in this field and express their opinion when it is necessary. In order to have people receiving timely information, the law provides how and when the notifying should take place. Secondly, the expediency and the administrative capability of the local governments have been taken into account. Based on the abovementioned first or second occasion, the need for personal informing is relatively small; for the majority of the plans, such need will not occur. Most of the personal notifications are sent as replies to the proposals or objections that have been received during the time of public displays of the plans. At the same time, it should be stressed that the Act has to be interpreted as the minimum standard for (mandatory) informing, which means that during preparation of every plan local governments should consider how much communication and informing they should provide additionally to minimum requirements in order to ensure that the interests of interested persons are taken into consideration in a balanced manner, which is a prerequisite for adoption of a plan (§ 4 subsection 2).