Government and New Landowner Agree to Protect Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon

Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon

Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, a popular tourist site in South Iceland, is being sold from one private owner to another. The Icelandic government had the right to step in and purchase the land for the state, but forewent that right. However, Environment Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson and the purchaser of the property have signed an agreement to work toward protecting the site.

The picturesque canyon and the surrounding area, covering 315 hectares, was put up for sale six years ago. A buyer made an offer on the property earlier this year and was accepted. However, as Fjaðrárgljúfur is on Iceland’s Nature Conservation Register, the state had pre-emptive purchase rights to the land. This means that if it chose to do so, it could step in and take over the purchase from the prospective landowner. The government ultimately decided not to exercise that right, but the Environment Minister has now signed an agreement with the to-be landowner that is expected to ensure the canyon’s protection.

According to a government notice announcing the agreement, the Environment Ministry did not consider it necessary to intervene in the purchase in order to guarantee the area would be protected. The agreement ensures the protection of the area, and necessary infrastructure development, will be a joint project between the state and the new owner.

Parking fees may be instated

Until now, no admission or parking fees have been charged at the site. The government notice states that in accordance with the Nature Conservation Act, “collection of fees shall not impair or impede the free movement of persons through the protected area who do not use the car park,” and that “the collection and disposition of fees that may be charged for the parking of motor vehicles shall be in its entirety used to develop services, operations, and infrastructure for those travelling in the area.”

The notice also states that neighbouring landowners whose land contains part of the canyon have expressed their willingness to collaborate on the protection of Fjaðrárgljúfur.

Fjaðrárgljúfur Purchase Offer Accepted

Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon

The Icelandic state needs to decide whether it will purchase Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, a popular tourist site in South Iceland, Fréttablaðið reports. The canyon is up for sale and an offer from a private investor has been accepted, but the state has pre-emptive purchase rights to the land. The purchase price is estimated between ISK 300 and 350 million [$2.3-2.7 million; €2.2-2.5 million].

The canyon and surrounding area covering 315 hectares was put up for sale six years ago. A buyer has now been found, and the sale manager revealed that they were Icelandic and work in tourism. The state can step in and buy the land if Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson decide to do so, but they have a limited window of time.

Fjaðrárgljúfur has been managed by the Environment Agency of Iceland in recent years. The agency has closed the area for weeks-long periods in recent years when tourist traffic was causing damage to the fragile vegetation around the canyon. The spot was not well-known to foreign tourists until it appeared in a music video by Justin Bieber in 2015, which put it on the map.

Until now, there has been no admission fee for visitors to the canyon. It is not known whether the private purchaser aims to profit from the land by charging admission.

Historic Hjörleifshöfði Estate Sold to Sand Mining Companies

Hjörleifshöfði

Hjörleifshöfði mountain and the black sand beach surrounding it have been sold to two companies, one Icelandic and one German. The companies plan to mine and sell sand from the location for use in sandblasting and cement making. The price tag of the South Iceland site has not been made public, though Vísir’s sources pin it at ISK 500 million ($3.96 million/€3.27 million) or more. The land’s previous owners say they made several unsuccessful attempts to sell the historic property to the Icelandic state.

A Historic Locale

Hjörleifshöfði is a 221-metre tall mountain located on a black sand plain, near the southernmost tip of Iceland, some 15 kilometres east of the town of Vík í Mýrdal. It was named by one of the first legendary settlers of Iceland, Hjörleifr Hróðmarsson, who settled there at the end of the ninth century, and he is said to be buried on it.

The land area bought by the two companies includes both Hjörleifshöfði and Hafursey mountains. It stretches from Kötlujökull glacier down to the sea and consists mostly of sand plains. The Ring Road, or Route 1, passes through the land.

Sandblasting and Concrete

Jóhann Vignir Hróbjartsson, Páll Tómasson, and Victor Berg Guðmundsson are the purchasers of the land, which measures over 11,000 hectares, through their company Mýrdalssandur ehf. alongside German company STEAG Power Minerals. The new owners plan to mine and sell sand from the location, an idea they have researched and developed since as early as 2008. The raw materials will be used in concrete and sandblasting and will mostly be exported for sale.

The companies plan to set up two sand mines on the land to begin with, though possibly more in the future. They have already made agreements with other landowners in the area regarding processing of the raw materials. Jóhann, Páll, and Victor state that environmental considerations are paramount to the company, which also plans to develop tourism at the location to attract local and foreign tourists.

Government Showed Little Interest

The Hjörleifshöfði estate previously belonged to three siblings: Þórir Kjartansson, Áslaug Kjartansdóttir, and Halla Kjartansdóttir. It was listed for sale around four years ago. Þórir told Vísir that the siblings made several unsuccessful attempts to sell the land to the Icelandic state. He says neither the previous government nor the current one showed much interest in the historic land. “I tried for a long time to get a meeting with [Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir] through her secretary to discuss the issue but without success. Then I decided to send her a personal letter, which I knew she would receive, where I included all the main information about the land along with pictures and more and asked her to contact me either by phone or email.” Þórir never received a response.

British Billionaire Plans to Build Fishing Lodge

British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe hopes to build a 950 sq m [10,226 sq ft] fishing lodge on land he co-owns in Vopnafjörður, in Northeast Iceland, RÚV reports. According to the public zoning application, the development plans include an onsite restaurant and guesthouse.

Ratcliffe has purchased a significant amount of land in the area in recent years and owns a majority share of at least 30 properties, a minority share of nine, and fishing rights at two places within public lands around Selárdalur, home to one of the best salmon rivers in the country. In the past, he’s stated that he bought the land in the name of environmental protection and in order to protect Icelandic salmon stock.

In order for Ratcliffe and his fellow owners to move forward with their development plans, the land at Ytri Hlíð, which is currently zoned as agricultural land, would need to be rezoned as a retail and service area. Per the proposal, the landowners say the fishing lodge and accompanying facilities and intended to strengthen tourism in the area and make it a more competitive destination on the local market. If approved, the fishing lodge would overlook Vesturárdalur valley, as well as the Krossavíkur and Smjörfjöll mountains.

In order for the proposed lodge and facilities to be usable, significant infrastructural development would also be required: a road to the property would need to be paved, power lines would have to be laid, and, in order to provide drinking water, a well would either need to be drilled or else a spring in a nearby village would need to be tapped for the purpose.

The public has the opportunity to comment on the proposal until September 3. The Vopnafjörður district office will also hold an open house on Monday to present the development plans.

New Laws Restrict Land Ownership to Maximum 10,000 Hectares

Deplar farm - Fljótin - Skagafjörður - hótel

A single landowner in Iceland, or affiliated parties, will not be permitted to own over 10,000 hectares (100km sq) of land according to new legislation just passed by Alþingi, RÚV reports. The legislation also calls for the establishment of a registry providing information on landowners at no cost. The legislation is the result of calls for stricter legislation on land ownership, particularly governing landowners based outside of Iceland. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir says she is prepared for the legislation to be challenged in court.

The Act on Property Ownership and Real Estate Utilisation was passed in Iceland’s parliament last week. It includes a provision for establishing a landowner registry where information on landowners can be obtained free of charge. “An overview of who owns our land will thus be created for both the government and the public in the country, and I consider that an important step in and of itself,” stated Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir. Another provision asserts that a title deed will not be notarised unless the purchase price of the asset is stated.

Billionaire Landowner Opposes Limits

The most controversial change within the legislation is that it authorises the Minister of Agriculture to impose restrictions on land purchases. If a landowner, or two or more affiliated parties, already own land totalling 10,000 hectares, they cannot acquire more unless they are granted a special exemption from the Minister. “And then there has to be a very, very strong argument for such a landmass to be in the hands of one party. That is about 0.4% of Iceland’s lowland, to give an example.”

Read More: Whose Land is it Anyway?

One organisation that has criticised the provision is Strengur, a fishing association majority-owned by British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe owns well over 10,000 hectares of land in Iceland, many of which he has purchased with the purported aim of protecting Iceland’s wild salmon stocks. The legislation would prevent Ratcliffe from purchasing additional property. (It is not, however, retroactive so he would be able to maintain ownership of his current assets.) Strengur representatives have argued that the provision violates the EEA Agreement, the Icelandic constitution, and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Strengur has not yet made a decision on whether it will challenge the legislation in court. Katrín states that she believes the act conforms to the EEA Agreement.

Government Takes Over Foreigner’s Fjord Purchase

The Icelandic state has purchased Hellisfjörður fjord in East Iceland, RÚV reports. A German entrepreneur had arranged to buy the land for ISK 40 million ($326,000/€291,000), when the Ministry for the Environment suggested the government use its pre-emptive rights to take over the contract. The goal of the purchase is to protect the mostly untouched land from development.

Uninhabited with no roads

According to Icelandic laws on nature conservation, the National Treasury has a pre-emptive right to purchase land and other property that is in whole or part on the Nature Conservation registry (Nátturuminjaskrá). The property in Hellisfjörður, located just south of Neskaupsstaður, measures 1,900 hectares (4,700 acres).

The fjord housed a whaling station in the early 20th century, but is currently uninhabited, though a handful of summer houses are located there. There is no road into the fjord and no electricity lines, and the government’s 2009-2013 nature conservation plan called for the fjord to be declared a nature reserve.

Rare, endangered plant species

The Environment Ministry and the Icelandic Institute of Natural History both called the fjord unique and worthy of conservation. In the statement from the Environment Ministry to the Ministry of Finance, it was stated that the fjord was an uninhabited wilderness little touched by humans, and it was important to let the nature in the area develop without the strain of human activity, as it would be vulnerable to any disruption. Vegetation in the fjord includes rare plant species, some of which are in danger of extinction, and the preservation of the area was stated to be important on a global scale.

Planned to farm fish

German entrepreneur Sven Jakobi had purchased the land through the company Vatnssteinn. According to the business registry, the company operates in freshwater fish farming. Sven had told local authorities he hoped to develop fishing in the area and possibly even build a harbour in the fjord.

The government has used its pre-emptive rights to purchase other properties with the aim of conservation. These include Teigarhorn by Djúpivogur (East Iceland), Fell by Jökulsárlón (South Iceland), and the land around by Geysir (Southwest Iceland).

British Billionaire Buys Land to Protect Salmon

Jim Ratcliffe

British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe says his most recent land purchase in Iceland is part of ongoing measures to protect the country’s wild salmon stocks. Ratcliffe stated as much in a press release sent to RÚV this morning. The ultimate goal is to make salmon fishing in Iceland the best and most sustainable in the world.

The press release states that the British mogul has expanded his plans of investment in local projects in Iceland’s northeast region with the aim to protect salmon in the area’s main fishing rivers. Ratcliffe aims to protect the rivers’ surrounding land as well as the fragile ecosystem of the area as a whole.

“Overfishing threatens the North Atlantic salmon stock and it is decreasing in rivers everywhere. The north-eastern part of Iceland is one of few salmon spawning areas that has escaped [this trend] and I want to do what I can to protect the area,” Ratcliffe is quoted as saying in the press release. Ratcliffe owns other properties in the region, for example in Vopnafjörður, where he has made efforts toward conserving the unique nature of the area alongside residents and other landowners.

Holistic approach to conservation

The press release outlines conservation measures planned for the next five years, which include expanding the salmon spawning area by installing salmon ladders in Hafralónsá, Hofsá, and Miðfjarðará rivers in Vopnafjörður. Fertilised roe will also be released into the rivers, as well as into Selá, where Ratcliffe’s efforts are reportedly bearing fruit through a growing salmon population.

In collaboration with communities in the northeast, Ratcliffe is also working to combat soil erosion and improving the ecosystems surrounding salmon rivers, in part by supporting reforestation efforts. He is also conducting a long-term study of the wellbeing of Icelandic salmon in rivers and out at sea, in collaboration with the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute as well as local and international universities.

Foreigners’ land purchase a hot topic

Land purchase by foreigners has been in the public discourse lately, with many pointing out that Iceland’s regulations regarding the purchase of land by foreigners is more lax than in neighbouring countries. The Icelandic government is currently reviewing the existing legislation with the consideration of tightening requirements for land purchase.

Read more: Whose Land Is It Anyway?

Calls for Stricter Regulations On Foreign Land Ownership

An increased number of wealthy foreign entities making large purchases of rural land in Iceland has prompted significant bipartisan concern, Kjarninn reports. Iceland’s Minister of Transport and Local Government hopes that a bill putting restrictions on the foreign purchase of Icelandic land will be ready for parliamentary review by the fall.

Foreign entities buying up properties in rural areas

Earlier this week, Morgunblaðið reported that Fljótabakki ehf., an Icelandic subsidiary of an American travel company called Eleven Experience, had purchased Atlastaðir, a farm in Svarfaðardalur valley in North Iceland, just 20 km [12 mi] from the village of Dalvík. Eleven Experience already owns and maintains the luxury hotel and spa called Deplar Farm in Skagafjörður fjord.

Fljótabakki’s land purchase this week is just the latest in a series of buys that the company has made around Fljót, which is located on the eastern side of Skagafjörður. Just last fall, the company purchased the farm Hraun, with the intention of setting up a tourism company there. Prior to that, the company purchased Nefstaðir, on the shore of Lake Stífluvatn, and it also owns the nearby properties of Knappsstaður, Steinavellir, and Stóra-Brekka.

Fljótabakki’s steady acquisition of the property in a remote area is not unprecedented; this week it was also reported that Sólstafir, a company owned by British millionaire Jim Ratcliffe, recently purchased Brúarland 2 in Þistilfjörður fjord in Northeast Iceland. With this purchase, Ratcliffe’s company now owns the majority of fishing rights along the Hafralónsá River, a popular salmon fishing river. Sólstafir had previously purchased other properties in Þistilfjörður, as well as in Vopnafjörður.

‘Significant and broad political will to put in place a stricter framework’

Minister of Transport and Local Government Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson says that these developments are completely unacceptable and that restrictions that were in place concerning land purchase in Iceland were removed in the course of changes that were made to the law fifteen years ago. He says that the Icelandic government has been looking at provisions that have been put in place in both Denmark and Norway in order to regulate foreign land purchases.

A working group was appointed in September 2018 to review laws about foreign ownership of agricultural properties in Iceland. The group suggested, among other things, that conditions be imposed on the purchasers, such as requiring that they maintain a legal residence at the property. Sigurður Ingi says that the government is currently working to put many of the working group’s recommendations in place, but that there are a number of stumbling blocks that are keeping from doing so, not least in other government ministries. He says, however, that he hopes the bill on land purchasing will be ready in the early fall.

“…[T]he changes that were made around…2003 and 2004 took down all the normal fences when it comes to these things and that has to change,” he told Morgunblaðið. “It’s my opinion that we need to go as far as we can with this.”

In an interview on national radio, Prime minister Katrín Jakóbsdóttir voiced her support for the initiative. “I believe there is a significant and broad political will to put in place a stricter framework around this issue in Iceland, just as we’ve seen throughout our neighbouring countries.”

Read more about this issue here – In Focus: Whose Land is it Anyway

Jim Ratcliffe Acquires More Land in Iceland

Jim Ratcliffe

British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe has purchased holding company Grænaþing from investor Jóhannes Kristinsson, Fréttablaðið reports. With the acquisition, Ratcliffe has a 86.7% stake in the fishing association Strengur Ltd., which owns the fishing rights of Selá and Hofsá rivers in Vopnafjörður, Northeast Iceland.

Ratcliffe was named the UK’s richest person in May 2018, with a net worth of £21.05 billion. He now has owns over 30 properties in Vopnafjörður in whole or part, alongside other land in Iceland.

Chairman and CEO of Ineos chemicals group, Ratcliffe has been purchasing land in Northeast Iceland over the past several years with the stated goal of protecting salmon rivers in the area. When he purchased Grímsstaðir á fjöllum in 2016, Ratcliffe issued a statement saying the land was an important catchment area for salmon rivers in the region and the purchase was a step toward protecting wild Atlantic salmon stocks.

The purchase of Icelandic land by foreign nationals has been in the local media spotlight lately, with many locals concerned about foreign landowners’ intentions with the land. Minister of Justice Sigríður Á. Andersen has expressed her desire to tighten land purchase regulations and increase transparency in company ownership of land.

Government Reconsiders Land Ownership Laws

Nearly one third of all land in Iceland is owned by businesses, not individuals, RÚV reports. Land purchase laws have become a subject of public debate recently, particularly with respect to non-residents buying land in the country.

A government task force is in the process of re-examining Iceland’s land purchase laws. Minister of Transport and Local Government Sigurður Ingi Jóhannson says the group hopes to introduce new legislation on the matter early this autumn. He believes tighter regulations on land ownership could apply to both Icelanders and foreign nationals.

“Many of us are of the opinion that areas outside urban areas, land and larger territories, should be in the ownership of Icelanders or those who live on the land here in the country and work on it,” Sigurður Ingi stated. “So the people there live in the community, create jobs and are not hoarding land which could later lead to there being deserted land or even deserted valleys.”

According to law, residents outside the European Economic Area (EEA) cannot purchase land in Iceland without a legal exemption granted by the Minister of Justice. However, if the land is purchased by businesses, it can be near impossible to determine who the true owners are.

Sigurður Ingi says it is difficult to prevent businesses from buying land in Iceland by way of other businesses. “Therefore I think that requirements for usage rights, exploitation rights, and requirements for some kind of usage of the land are better suited to deal with this factor than legislation alone. We’ve simply seen it, it’s difficult to have oversight in this.”

In 2013, parliament passed legislation barring foreign nationals from owning property in Iceland without a legal domicile or business operations in the country. The legislation was later rescinded, as it was believed to be a violation of EEA regulations. Minister of Justice Sigríður Andersen says the ministry is working to determine which conditions should apply to foreigners who wish to purchase land in Iceland. Sigríður has expressed her belief it would not be right to ban foreign nationals from purchasing land altogether.