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In Europe, iconic properties go on sale

Here in the heart of Sherwood Forest, a real-life Robin Hood tale is unfolding, only in reverse.

If the British government gets its way, large chunks of these woods where the Merry Men reputedly squared off against the sheriff of Nottingham may soon be up for sale. Officials want the money to help plug a gaping hole in the public purse.

To outraged locals, it’s a case of taking a common good from ordinary, hardworking taxpayers and giving it to rich developers and greedy corporations. Robin Hood, if he ever existed, would be terribly cross.

“The woodland belongs to the people,” said Peter Zakarian-Ball, 37, who’s been coming to Sherwood Forest for a bit of the great outdoors since he was a boy. “It shouldn’t be sold from under them.”

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But these are tough times for the state, and not just here in Britain. Across Europe, countries faced with huge budget deficits are trying to unload government-owned property in an attempt to balance their books, including some iconic buildings.

Fancy a foothold in France? Try the elegant 18th century Hotel de Seignelay in one of the most fashionable districts of Paris. With gold molding on its salon walls and a tombstone for Marie Antoinette’s dog in the back garden, the mansion is one of hundreds of buildings for sale or long-term lease by the French government.

Want to rub elbows with George Clooney? A spacious villa on the edge of Italy’s Lake Como, where the actor maintains a home, may be put on the market this year by local authorities. Asking price: $14.7 million.

And how about your own island in the lagoon off Venice? Monks lived on Certosa until 1810. Soon you may be able to as well, for $40 million.

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Getting rid of excess or unused property is a regular government exercise during good times and bad. Many of the assets up for grabs are buildings that have been outgrown or plots of land that are no longer needed, such as military training grounds rendered superfluous as armies downsize and change shape.

But a new age of government austerity in Europe has lent greater urgency to these fire sales as investors put deficit-plagued nations on notice that they must balance their books or face the consequences.

Some of the proposed sell-offs have stirred up consternation among people who worry that pieces of their countries’ cultural or natural patrimony are being sacrificed for the sake of making a quick buck, perhaps never to be recovered for public use or enjoyment.

Take the Hotel de la Marine in Paris — please, says the French government.

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The massive structure has housed France’s naval headquarters since revolutionary times and is “magnificently situated on the Place de la Concorde” in the very heart of the French capital, as the listing has it. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their heads in the square in front of the building.

But the navy is moving out in 2014, and the government wants a private, deep-pocketed tenant to occupy the space for the next 60 to 80 years. The going price is a closely guarded secret (serious inquiries only). About 20 candidates have apparently put in bids.

Alarmed that the building is to fall out of state hands, former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing and others have signed a petition saying it shouldn’t happen. The current defense minister, Alain Juppe, said recently that “it must remain a cultural and intellectual space. I don’t want Miss France contests to be organized here.”

All told, the French government has put up about 1,700 properties for sale or lease, among them old warehouses and military installations as well as chic residences. Officials hope to ink deals worth more than half a billion dollars this year, with about 15% of the proceeds to be applied to the public debt. The rest is to go toward supplementing various departmental budgets.

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In Italy, the government has tacked “For Sale” signs outside more than a dozen state-owned buildings, including army barracks and former prisons.

Officials have also drawn up a separate list of nearly 12,000 properties across the country that the government in Rome is considering giving to cash-strapped local authorities, which can find ways to exploit them for profit.

“They can use it for increasing their money: selling them, using them, giving concessions to private people to use them for tourism, anything else,” said Patrizia Vasta, the spokeswoman for Italy’s Public Real Estate Agency. “We are talking about very different kinds of properties; it can be just a piece of ground, it can be a castle.”

The combined value of the assets on the list equals about $3 billion. This being Italy, many of the properties boast impressive pedigrees, such as the imposing Palazzo di Badia in Tuscany, a former Benedictine monastery with surviving Renaissance cloisters from the 15th century. It’s valued at $2.1 million.

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Protected cultural monuments won’t be included in the potential transfers and sales, Vasta said.

A big challenge is finding buyers in a tough economic climate, especially for larger properties. No one with an extra $56.5 million on hand has stepped forward yet to claim a former military garrison in Bologna, a sprawling 27-acre, 26-building complex that can be put to both residential and industrial use.

“They are big investments,” Vasta said. “We’ve managed to sell what was smaller [and more] affordable.”

In Britain, the government is proposing legal changes that would enable it to sell off all the land owned by the state Forestry Commission. That amounts to about 1,000 square miles, or 18% of all woodland in England, worth an estimated $1.1 billion.

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The prospect has run into a buzz saw of opposition from people concerned that some of the country’s most precious and beautiful landscapes will wind up as golf courses and resorts. Protection of woodlands has a long and illustrious history in England: Laws governing use of various forests date at least as far back as the Magna Carta in the 13th century.

Officials have hastened to assure the public that selling off swaths of forest isn’t tantamount to sending in bulldozers. The government says plenty of woodland is already in private hands with little adverse effect and that sites of special interest will be preserved. Local buyers and stakeholders could find ways to use the forest both sustainably and profitably, for example, by setting up facilities for hikers.

But that hasn’t stopped activists from circulating online petitions and mounting noisy protests. About 3,000 demonstrators gathered this month in the Forest of Dean, an ancient woodland in Gloucestershire. (Harry Potter and his pals also camped there to escape Lord Voldemort in the last installment of the series.)

“We’re talking about the most valuable, oldest forest land in the U.K. It’s forest land that really should be sacrosanct,” said Jack Neill-Hall of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

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Private ownership of woodland isn’t automatically evil, he said. But the question is how well the forest would be managed and whether public rights of access would be maintained. Britain’s green spaces, both in private and public hands, are crisscrossed by paths open to walkers and others.

Here in the medieval market town of Mansfield, in Nottinghamshire, a plaque marks the site of the tree, now gone, that legend says stood at the exact center of Sherwood Forest. It’s not as famous as the Major Oak, a gnarled 800-year-old behemoth a few miles away, where Robin Hood allegedly hid with his happy band of outlaws, but residents are proud of it.

Lesley Ward, 48, and her husband, Brian, 53, walk their dogs two or three times a week beneath the sheltering pines on the edge of town. These days, the trees bear placards put up by activists that warn, “This forest for sale.”

Ward hopes the government’s plans get cut down before they can start.

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“Where does it end? They take one bit, and a few years down the line, they’ll take a bit more,” she said. “I don’t understand why they’re doing this to a place of such beauty.”

Her husband was more blunt: “Every generation sells off the family silver.”

henry.chu@latimes.com

Janet Stobart in The Times’ London Bureau and special correspondent Devorah Lauter in Paris contributed to this report.


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