Villagers in last stand to save Belgian ghost town

DOEL, Belgium Tue Jun 11, 2013 9:36am EDT

1 of 9. Frie Lauwers, who lives in the Belgian village of Doel, stands next to an abandoned building in Doel June 5, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Yves Herman

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DOEL, Belgium (Reuters) - The Belgian village of Doel is facing its final battle for survival against plans to expand the adjacent port of Antwerp that will erase it from the map to make way for a new dock.

Doel is wedged between a nuclear power plant and an existing set of docks and once had a population of over a thousand. Bu it is now a collection of boarded up houses and vacated shops and home to only about 30 people.

The Flemish regional government aims to include the village in one of Europe's largest ports from June 17 over the objections of the remaining villagers who will ask the country's highest administrative court to block this change.

"You have to be very stubborn and you have to be willing to put up a fight, even if you can't be sure of victory," said Frie Lauwers, who is part of the initiative to keep the village alive, and lives in a former school building.

The transformation plan would dig a ship-sized dock across the village and turn surrounding farmland into a nature reserve, an environmental requirement for the port's expansion.

The future of the 400-year-old village of Doel, which is overshadowed by the two cooling towers of a nuclear power plant to the north, appeared bleak as early as 1998 when the regional government first outlined plans to expand the port.

Years of uncertainty have turned Doel into a ghost town, covered in graffiti.

Many left in the late 1990s when authorities offered premiums to those who sold their homes. The government plans to dispossess the remaining 10 home owners.

Those, like Lauwers, who do not own homes, are still able rent after a court blocked termination of their contracts a few years ago.

Remaining villagers say that, in spite of its proximity to the port and the power station, Doel has its architectural attractions, such as a house which is said to have belonged to the family of baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens.

But years of looting, squatting and neglect have pushed the village beyond the point of no return, according to others.

"I think the village is dead now and you can't reanimate a dead calf," said Frans Sans, who lived in the village for most of his life but left about four years ago.

The villagers did win one battle in 2012 when the country's highest administrative court overturned a similar decision to turn the village into a part of the port. The government simply revised its plans.

Should the villagers lose the appeal, it remains unclear exactly when Doel would disappear. The authorities have no fixed time line for the new dock's construction and could also use the land for other ends, such as a container storage area.

(Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Paul Casciato)

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